To see a show or not to see a show? That is one of the many questions that parents ask themselves when headed to London with Kids. But it’s important to understand that there’s actually a lot of different types of children’s theater in London – so this post is meant to help you pick what will work best for your family. Here’s our guide to London Theater for Kids.
West End Theater
What most people think of first when they think of theater in London are the big West End productions. And for good reason! Many of these shows are spectacular – both visually and musically. With world-class acting, singing and music – London (along with New York) offers what is likely the best selection of shows in the world. It’s easy to find lists of these shows online here and here.
What does “West End” mean? Typically, people use this term in conjunction with theater in London. It loosely refers to a roughly triangular section of Central London – with corners at Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross, and Aldwych (the distinctive half-circle street north of Temple and South of Holborn tube stops). And all of it centered around Leicester Square. That’s where most (though not all) of the theaters are. Not surprisingly, there is also a tremendous density of restaurants, shops, museums, galleries and other fun things to do in this area – so you’ll likely be spending a good bit of your time here.
While we were in London, we took our kids to see Matilda (when Jackson was 8) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (when Ty was 6). Both were really good – although as you’ll know if your kids have read Roald Dahl, a bit dark in parts.
I think that these are great choices for kids – as are the other options that you’ll find in the links above. All of the top tier shows are done with very elaborate sets that really serve to immerse you into the world in which the show is set in a very powerful way. Especially for kids, this is where the emotional side of live theater can really make an impact. Also, all of the theaters are fairly small – most holding less than 1000 seats, with a few larger ones closer to 2000. As such, even the seats in the back don’t feel far from the action. That said, I think that if you’re going to spend the money to go to one of these shows, then for most families it makes sense to spend a bit more for better seats. There’s a substantive difference in terms of the level of immersiveness if you’re front and center, as opposed to all the way in the back of the balcony. But if your kids are sensitive to sensory inputs, then perhaps being farther back could help them experience the show in a less intense way, which might be preferable. Many of the balconies are quite steep – so from the back you end up looking down at a significant angle which feels unnatural, and at times can cut off part of the stage.
Tip: Most shows have an intermission (they call it an “interval”), and during that intermission, they’ll sell tiny cartons of Haagen Dazs ice cream. Get some. They’re a surprising treat, and they look adorable.
Can you get cheap(er) tickets?
Many families may experience some sticker shock when they see the prices for West End shows. Tickets typically run around £70 – some over $100. Front and center tickets will be closer to £90, whereas you can often get some of the less desirable seats for around £60. So for a family of four, that puts the price of a West End show at over $350, which makes for a pretty expensive evening! There are two ways to save some £’s here. The first is to try to a mid-week matinee, rather than an evening show. This is a great option if you’re traveling in early June, as most UK schools don’t let out until mid-to-late June – so there are some deals to be had at that time of year. The second way to save is to look for discounted tickets – which you can do either online or in person. Check here for what’s available, or here to buy online. It’s unpredictable what they’ll have from day to day, so if you’re near Leicester Square it’s good to stop by the ticket windows and see in person. When you enter Leicester Square from the Leicester Square tube station, you’ll see the half priced ticket booths on either side of the plaza. You can also try the TKTS booth on the south side of Leicester Square. Unfortunately during peak tourist season (July and August), it’s unlikely that you’ll find deals on the best shows for kids – but it can’t hurt to try!
Whether or not the full West End experience is worth the cost depends entirely on personal preference. If you’re someone who loves the theater, then don’t miss it while you’re in London – it will be a great time for you and your kids. But if you’re going for the sake of the kids, then there are other options that our kids liked better, and that offer a great experience at a much cheaper price.
In addition to the West End shows, London is home to many theaters that cater to families and kids. These tend to be smaller venues, and the productions are not as elaborate. Instead of a live orchestra, they’ll have either a recorded sountrack, or perhaps one person on piano (or a small ensemble). But what they lack in production values they more than make up for in enthusiasm, and in British charm and humor. Many of these shows tend to be more silly, rather than dramatic (our kids’ favorite was “Aliens Love Underpants”) – but that’s because they’re made for kids, and kids like silly stuff. We went to many of these shows, and our kids loved them! Yours probably will too.
TimeOut provides the a good list of some selected Children’s shows. Here’s another list from VisitLondon that is organized by theater – you’ll need to click on each theater to see what’s playing (click on “What’s On”). Keep an eye out for shows in the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. This is a fantastic venue that does a lot of Shakespeare, and sometimes has kids shows.
Instead of £70/ticket, tickets for Children’s Theater will be closer to £20, which makes for a far more affordable outing.
If you’ll be in London in August, and you want to see a show – you’re in luck! August in London is Kid’s Week! Not sure why they don’t call it Kid’s Month – since it goes for the whole month of August – but who’s complaining? In August, there are a set number of tickets for which a kid accompanied by a paying adult can get a free ticket to many of the big West End shows, as well as some other smaller children’s shows! And you can also get a second kids ticket for 50% off. But you have to act fast. The tickets are already on sale, and they’ll sell out well before August – so if you know that you’d like to do a show you should book your tickets asap. Some of the best shows (like Matilda, The Lion King and Les Mis) are sold out – but many fantastic productions (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Gruffalo, and Horrible Histories among others) are still available. The website has a helpful breakdown of all of the shows that participate, separated by age appropriateness, where they show you which shows still have Kids Week tickets available. Move fast and you could snag yourself a good deal! Even if you’re not going in London, this is the most comprehensive list that I’ve found of the major shows and which are appropriate for which age groups.
William Shakespeare is recognized by most as the greatest English language playwright of all time. He lived and performed in London for most of his adult life, and his influence in London can be felt to this day. Contrary to what you may think, the Shakespeare’s Globe that you can visit today is not actually the original theater. That one opened in in 1599, but was destroyed by fire in 1613. A second theater lasted about 30 years in the early 1600’s. But the modern Globe is built very close to where the original stood – and the architects have gone to great lengths to be as faithful as possible to the original design.
The Globe hosts Shakespeare’s classic productions – such as Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Taming of the Shrew throughout the year. However these shows are not ideal for kids – either in content or style. Instead, if you want to introduce your kids to Shakespeare the Globe theater tour looks like a great choice for older kids. The Globe website also has some great online resources and games to help introduce your little ones to Shakespeare!
Short for Pantomimes, Pantos are a distinctive genre of plays that are put on only around Christmastime. They are often a goofy take on a classic children’s tale – like Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, or Dick Whittington’s Cat. They’re probably like nothing you’ve ever seen – and they’re wonderful!
They are a very unique genre, that pretty much all follow the same formula:
- They’re for kids… but also for adults. Like a good Disney or Pixar movie, the general plot and theme are for children – but there are many references and jokes that are clearly for parents. These are often hilarious, and are frequently mild sexual innuendo.
- They pretty much always follow the same overall plot – there’s a hero, and a villain, and the hero is usually pretty naive throughout most of the show. So the villain almost wins, but then the hero manages to come out ahead in the end – oftentimes by dumb luck.
- There’s always a “Panto Dame” – who is almost always played by a cross-dressed man wearing a lot of makeup.
- There’s a LOT of crowd participation. This is a big part of the show. The crowd will sing the songs, hiss at the villain, cheer the hero, and most of all, scream “Look behind you!!” when the villain is trying, in vain, to ambush the hero. It’s really fun for both kids and adults.
- The bigger shows will often feature some well-known West End or TV actors, so you might get to catch a big name!
Most of all though, Pantos will leave you with a huge smile on your face. If you’re in London in December, don’t miss the chance to see one!
Are you taking your kids to see a show while you’re in London? Which of these do you think that your kids would like most?