Why the West End is more family-friendly than assumed

One of the best qualities of the West End is that it has a wide variety of shows on offer for the theatre-going public. London is a veritable smorgasbord of theatrical delights, designed to appeal to every taste and fancy, and it is because of this that more and more people have been visiting our theatres. There are comedies, melodramas, film-adaptions, jukebox musicals…whether you are 9 or 99, there is something for you in the West End.

One could look at the current crop of musicals running and distinguish them apart from one another in regards to which are suitable for kids, and which are suitable for adults. The West End has always strived to be seen as accessible to the youth generation and I think most would agree that it has succeeded in this respect – any issue with children attending the theatre has always come from other audience members themselves, in my experience. There are plenty of ‘family-friendly’ shows in town which aim to draw in both adults and kids alike and provide an entertaining theatrical experience which the whole family can enjoy. Is there really any line of separation between ‘family-friendly’ shows and ones for older audiences though?

My daughter has been accompanying me to the theatre for many years now, probably from around the time of about six years of age. Between my reviewing duties and visits just for our own enjoyment, she has likely seen more musical productions than a lot of kids her age. As she has grown, her love of musical theatre has grown with her, and we have often spent many an hour happily chattering away on the subject.

In what may well have been her first ever theatre experience, and which was certainly the most memorable in any case, I brought her with me to the Adelphi Theatre to see a performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies. I remember being unsure as to whether or not it would be able to grip her attention for the full length of the performance, due to her young age, but in the end I needn’t have worried as our trip was an undisputed success. She absolutely adored the production and sat there glued to the events of The Phantom and Christine’s reunion in Coney Island for the entirety of the show, actually giving other decidedly older yet less-considerate audience members a lesson in theatre etiquette along the way. She immediately announced that she wanted to see it again, and on the other occasions we went, her delight with the show increased rather than waned.

What struck me the most about that experience was her ability to emotionally connect with the show in a manner which would perhaps seem beyond her tender years. Christine’s death was a scene charged with heart-breaking emotion, and I admit that it had me in tears on more than one occasion…it also had the same effect on her. Only six years old and she was in floods of tears, utterly devastated by the events unfolding on the stage before her. Even the reappearance of Sierra Boggess (who was playing the role of Christine at the time) during the curtain call, clearly alive and well, did little to abate her sadness. The other times she saw Love Never Dies, it always ended with tears, and the release of Australian production DVD only meant that she could now cry her eyes out in the comfort of our home.

It was her favourite show for a long time, and her reaction to the news of its closure still makes me chuckle. The rants went on for weeks, and if she’d had her way, she would have been marching over to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s house to give him a big piece of her mind. Even now, she can’t walk past the Adelphi Theatre without having a moan about the musical being gone from there.

She has seen many more shows since then, and it has always been the more adult-orientated productions which have grabbed her attention over the kiddy-friendly ones. For one of her birthdays she was allowed the pick of any show as a special birthday treat, and out of everything she could have chosen, it was Les Miserables she wanted to see. Being a melodramatic musical built around a story of quite serious content, and with a lack of big song and dance numbers, and glitz and glamour, I was unsure as to whether she would enjoy this for her birthday as much as say, Wicked or The Lion King. Once again though, I was proven wrong as her attention was held for the whole of the performance and she emerged declaring that this was her new favourite musical; a position she still maintains to this day.

We’ve seen a variety of musicals together, including the ‘family-friendly’ Shrek The Musical, Matilda, and most recently, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. She naturally loved these productions, which have everything which is supposed to appeal to the younger generation, and would be more than happy to pay them a return visit. Still, given the choice, she would pick the likes of Les Miserables over them every time. In fact, her order of Top Three musicals goes:

1)      Les Miserables

2)      Once The Musical

3)      Love Never Dies

There have been a few occasions when I’ve had audience members bemoaning the fact of her presence at these more ‘grown-up’ shows, but she has always been perfectly behaved and thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Isn’t that what theatre is about? So long as they are able to fully appreciate a production, I don’t see that it matters what age the theatre-goer is. When reviewing Shrek, which was about as kiddy-friendly as you could get, there were numerous adults there without children – what’s the difference? It seems to me that children’s ability to appreciate a show of a more mature nature are often underestimated and that any discrepancy between what is and isn’t suitable for their age bracket is a pointless endeavour. There are exceptions of course; I certainly won’t be bringing her along to The Book of Mormon anytime soon, for instance. In general though, I would happily take her to the majority of musicals in the West End though without any fear of it being a waste of her time or my money, and with no qualms about her being a distraction to any of the other theatre-goers in attendance.

Theatre is no longer primarily for the wealthy, upper-class members of society. Over the years, it has become more and more accessible for people from all walks of life and I see no reason why this cannot extend to people of all ages as well. I will continue to let her see the shows that others might deem to be out of her range of appeal, and I would also encourage other parents to try the same with their children. I fully believe that allowing her to experience musicals such as Love Never Dies, Les Miserables and Once has actually been beneficial to her and helped to mould her into the compassionate, empathetic and mature girl that she is today. Theatre is for everyone, and if more people followed this belief and exposed their children to the wonderful range of shows on offer in the West End, the kids may end up surprising them.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Tuesday 4th February 2014

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