Stars including Edward Fox, Jane Asher and Bill Nighy (pictured) have launched an appeal to raise a final £1.6 million needed for Unicorn Theatre's new Southwark home, the UK’s first purpose-built theatre for children, for which construction began last October (See News, 23 Oct 2003). Previously costed at £11.5 million, the funding target has now risen to £12.6 million, widening the shortfall which its supporters are hoping the public will help make up in order for the theatre to open as planned in autumn 2005.

The new theatre – located on London’s South Bank close to Tower Bridge and the Greater London Assembly offices - 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.

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.

Other celebrities who attended Friday’s fundraising launch were: Imelda Staunton, Celia Imrie, Joanna David, Gemma Jones, Roger Lloyd Pack, Jared Harris and Jim Carter. Joining the stars were children from the Unicorn’s Young Consultants Group from the Southwark area, who worked with Keith Williams Architects for three years to design the theatre.

The appeal invites members of the public to contribute to the Unicorn and have their names prominently displayed alongside other supporters including Robbie Williams and Dame Judi Dench. Funding initiatives range from £1,000 to ‘name a seat’ in the auditorium through to £100 pounds for inscribing a name on a special supporting wall. For more information, visit the theatre website or call 020 7697 1150.

The UK’s other leading theatre dedicated to children and young adults, the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon, south London, celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. It’s main-house Christmas production, David Wood’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, opens this week and continues its limited season until 22 January 2005.

- by Terri Paddock