Mythical beast becomes reality: London’s Unicorn Theatre by Keith Willliams.

How long does it take for a committed theatre company to build its own base, a venue it owns the keys to and can call home? In the case of the Unicorn Theatre, the decades passed and its founder died and the lease on its interim base expired years back, since when it has had no fixed address. But now – as if by some smoke-and-mirrors trick – a purpose-built, £13.5m new Unicorn Theatre has finally emerged near Tower Bridge. It has taken 45 years to get to this point.

Totally new theatres in Britain are rare, and good ones rarer still. As for good examples for children, two have come along at once: the Egg theatre in Bath by Haworth Tompkins, inserted into a historic building, and this all-new one by architect Keith Williams. It is more ambitious, the accomplishment of the dream of a national theatre for children, as envisaged by Unicorn’s founder Caryl Jenner back in 1960. She had already been on the road since 1947, having started out back then touring productions in a second-hand Bedford civil defence truck. Later the company settled in London’s Arts Theatre, only to be kicked out after several years when the place was sold. Having abandoned plans to build for themselves in the mid 1970s, the idea was revived in the National Lottery era.

So this was a matter both of re-imagining theatre from the ground up, and of seeing it through the eyes of children. Not the easiest of architectural challenges: but Williams, who won the competition for the building, has managed it. To report that it does not feel remotely kiddified is high praise: Williams has ingeniously made a place that does not play down to any particular age group. It is sophisticated in an entirely grown-up way. Or as my ten-year-old daughter put it, it’s cool. And she did not just mean that it is entirely free of patronising bubblegum colours and forced Ronald Macdonald cheerfulness.

The new Unicorn is a modernist tower house or enchanted castle, with the copper-clad auditorium perched up in the air and a thoroughly dramatic glass-clad foyer rising dizzyingly high, backed by a stack of concrete and glass balconies looking right down Tooley Street towards London Bridge. This is a building that (courtesy of engineers Arup) quietly deploys structural gymnastics to achieve Williams’ architectural effects. Using horizontal cantilevers rather than vertical columns, everything seems to hover. There are no columns to get in the way of anything, in the foyer or the auditorium.

The foyer, a grand L-shaped affair, gives you the sense of arriving somewhere glamorous. The walnut stairs and their balconies provide an intriguing interlude as you spiral up and up. And the main 340-seat Weston auditorium is as intense a space as any conventional layout can be. The elliptical seating in the stalls is overlaid by a circle level that is indeed geometrically circular. There is a thrust stage with the seats curving around it – for Williams, theatre of this kind is storytelling, and to tell a story properly you must gather your audience around you. Perhaps you could argue that the seating could have embraced the stage more, coming more round the sides. However, it is flexible: for the opening production of Tom’s Midnight Garden, a section of island seating occupies the thrust section of the stage, separated from the rest of the stalls by a curving strip of stage round the back. Occasionally the actors scooted right round the back of this bit of the audience.

The auditorium is excellent acoustically and visually. As for the curving blue-upholstered bench seating – supposedly designed for an age range of four to 12 – the backrests were uncomfortably low for a ten-year old, let alone me. Mind you, I’ve endured much more agonising seats at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio, and those are meant to be for adults. The Unicorn auditorium was over-chilled, but they’ll presumably adjust that soon enough. There is a second, smaller “black box” theatre down below, and sundry rehearsal and education rooms set high in the building.

Those are about the only criticisms I can level at what is a fine piece of architecture. It’s of the school of purist tectonics we’ve seen previously at Caruso St. John’s Walsall Art Gallery, which means it is all about a kind of sumptuous austerity. Moreover, because there is no pressing need for elaborate stage scenery in children’s theatre, the building did not have to contend with the perennial problem of an obtrusive flytower. The traditional stage grid and system of counterbalanced weights is there, but it is not designed for some theoretical ne plus ultra production. What the Unicorn’s artistic director Tony Graham asked for, according to Williams, was “rough yet beautiful”. In fact, it’s not rough at all. More tough, clearly revelling in its materiality – which extends to a slightly startling stage door area boxed out in blue mosaic.

Some architects emerge onto the scene with claps of thunder, puffs of smoke and carefully contrived manifesto positions. Others acknowledge that architecture is a hard thing to engage with and that it takes time to develop an authoritative voice. Williams is of the latter school. Quietly, competition win by competition win, he is building up a portfolio of increasingly assured high-modern buildings, each an exercise in the art of tectonics. Williams set up in practice on his own only in 2001 and has an increasingly international workload. Like Caruso St. John, he is considerably more than just another New Modern, as the composition of the Unicorn demonstrates. The little theatre had to hold its own against the gargantuan “More London” commercial development, designed by Foster and Partners, between it and the Thames. It also had to help hold together the grain of an important thoroughfare, the fast-reviving Tooley Street. Given that and a confined island plot of land, the tower-house solution is as much a pragmatic response as a stylistic one.

So what of the opening production? Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden is one of those period children’s novels that, like the chronicles of Narnia, is all about a post-war, cold-war longing for a golden age. The same idea of a portal to a lovelier world is there, the same messing with time. A vanished garden and its inhabitants are discovered by Tom when (authentically period, this) he is quarantined as a potential measles carrier at the flat of his aunt and uncle with its mysterious clock-obsessed elderly landlady. As lonely as any wartime evacuee, he befriends the girl in the garden and – well, you probably know the rest. This is David Wood’s stage adaptation, originally commissioned by Unicorn in 2000.

Unicorn’s method, zealously maintained by Graham, is to present grown-up theatre that works on children’s imaginations by suggestion rather than anything much in the way of props or stage-sets – probably the legacy of those early years working off the back of a truck. A door, a long-case clock, a stair, a platform, lots of rope. It’s enough. There are only minimal lighting and sound effects. You never see any image of the garden except what’s described. So it’s down to the actors.

They were a bit creaky at first, but played themselves in. Tom is Rudi Dharmalingam, who I last saw in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. Perhaps in an effort to appear child-like, he comes over as someone still mouthing his lines rather than acting. Debra Penny as Hatty, the girl in the garden, plays the child rather better, and grows up convincingly. The other highlight is Iain Stuart Robertson as both Tom’s Uncle Alan and Abel, the gardener who sees more than he lets on. Three others of the cast play musical instruments on stage as well as acting, always a trick guaranteed to impress a young audience.

At the time the novel was written in the late 1950s, the present was the present. Now, it’s nearly 50 years in the past, so for today’s children this represents a double time-shift which the Unicorn handles reasonably deftly. After all, as Graham points out, the book and the theatre company are near-contemporaries. It’s an interesting thought: how best to entertain children in what then seemed a world quivering on the brink of apocalypse? How does that attitude play in today’s no less dangerous world?

Text © Hugh Pearman, photos © Hélène Binet. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, December 4, 2005, as “A rare creature”.

Unicorn Theatre:

Keith Williams architects: