Construction of the UK's first purpose-built theatre for children begins today. Unicorn Theatre's new Southwark home is set to cost £11.5 million, but today they were £1 million closer to their target thanks to an award from mayor Ken Livingstone and the London Development Agency.

At a star-studded groundbreaking ceremony held today, Unicorn's president Sir Alan Ayckbourn will 'turn the first sod', while the mayor will reiterate the key role he believes the new theatre will play in the cultural future of the capital.

The new theatre will house a 350-seat main auditorium, a 120-seat performance studio, an education studio, a rehearsal space, a café and foyer. Unicorn plans to produce a total of eight new productions each year across both auditoria and also host national and international touring productions.

Founded in 1947 by Caryl Jenner, the Unicorn Theatre for Children initially performed to its audience of children, families and schools from the back of two ex-army trucks. In the late 1960s, Unicorn developed an alliance with the Arts Theatre in Covent Garden's Great Newport Street, producing children's shows in the day while at night the theatre reverted to a programme for adults. For the past four years, the Unicorn has played at numerous regional and London venues, including residencies at the Pleasance, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre and the Cochrane.

Unicorn's artistic director Tony Graham continues to commission playwrights like Adrian Mitchell (The Lion The Witch & The Wardrobe and Alice in Wonderland for the RSC) and David Wood (The Twits, The BFG and James and the Giant Peach) to bring new writing to all of Unicorn's productions.

Whereas other European countries - including France, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Belgium and Holland - have had specifically designed theatres for children for some time, it has taken more than 50 years to set the wheels in motion for a permanent children's theatre in the UK. Building commences on the Unicorn home as a new Arts Council guide warns that many theatres are ignoring children and a considerable chunk of the market.

Amongst the other celebrities due to attend today's groundbreaking ceremony are Philip Pullman, Michael Portillo, Gerald Scarfe, Sue MacGregor, Miriam Stoppard, Sir John Mortimer as well as actors such as Juliet Stevenson, Alexandra Jay, Patricia Routledge, Emily Mortimer, Susan Hampshire, Jane Asher, Nigel Planer, Rupert Graves, Claire Skinner, Emilia Fox, Richard Wilson, Greg Wise and Preeya Kalidas.

Unicorn have raised £9.4 million so far, but need a further £2 million to hit their target if the building is to be completed by 2005 as planned. Unicorn's next production is a Christmas season of Rumpelstiltskin, which will run at the Cochrane Theatre from 28 November 2003 to 11 January 2004.

- by Hannah Kennedy