London has a major new theater for children’s work, the Unicorn, a Southwark venue set for a Dec. 1 grand opening.

The Unicorn represents one of the last lottery-funded ventures to come into being in London, with only the rebuilt Young Vic still to open its doors sometime next year.

But whether the Unicorn actually marks the U.K.’s first purpose-built playhouse for young’uns remains a hot-button issue (and depends on whom you ask).

The £13 million ($22.5 million) building includes a 340-seat mainstage and 120-seat black box studio. Situated immediately behind City Hall, home to the mayor of London and the London Assembly, the Unicorn is the latest, says a.d. Tony Graham “in a string of cultural pearls along the river front,” stretching from the London Eye adjacent to the South Bank complex all the way east to the Design Museum at Butler’s Wharf.

The Unicorn, founded in 1948, occupied a “temporary” home for three decades at the now-empty Arts Theater near Leicester Square. “Every morning at 8:30 the set would go up and at 4:30 it would come down,” sighs Graham of an arrangement whereby the children’s work would have to give way to adult fare every evening. “By the ’90s, we were a mess, a shambles, a company in deep crisis.” A move in 1998 to north London’s Pleasance wasn’t ideal, either, since that venue occupies a dodgy, none too kid-friendly neighborhood.

Now, the theater has its own base, support from Southwark Council and programming firmly in place through June and beyond. Sixty percent of the work, says Graham, will be self-generated, with 40% offering a London home to touring companies from the U.K. and overseas. (Opening show is a revival of David Wood‘s “Tom’s Midnight Garden,” adapted from the Philippa Pearce book. Production is aimed at those age 8 and older.)

Telling Variety of the theater’s journey to this point, Graham says, “Many people said you’ll be fine, but my God, it was a struggle. Now we’re ready.”

Brit bits

  • The tiny Gate Theater’s much-vaunted revival of the musical “Hair,” which finished an extended run in Notting Hill at the end of October, looks unlikely to brave its hoped-for West End transfer any time soon. Word is the figures just didn’t add up for a commercial London stand of Daniel Kramer‘s startling reclamation of the iconic Broadway tuner, which may next alight in New York instead.

  • David Hare‘s “Skylight” may be back on the West End in 2006. The plan is for Dublin-based helmer Michael Caven to revive the three-character drama, which was a success the first time around at the National Theater and the West End and then on Broadway. Trevor Eve and Helen McCrory have been cited as possibles to head the cast.

‘Wife’ writer fires back

Among the more entertaining aspects of the Guardian’s recent relaunch has been the new Right of Reply column, which gives cultural practitioners the opportunity to answer their critics.

Richard Bean took up the journalistic cudgel in September to hit back at those who faulted the final scene of his Royal Court play “Harvest.” In short, that scene is there to stay, folks, whether you like it or not. And on Nov. 16, the pulpit was passed to scribe Doug Wright, no doubt still smarting from the two stars out of five Michael Billington in the same paper awarded the West End bow of “I Am My Own Wife.” (The Nov. 14 local preem of Blue Man Group fared even worse from the Guardian, with second-string Lyn Gardner opting for a brutal one star out of five.)

Calling “Wife” “overworshipful and under-investigative,” Billington prompted the following from Wright: “In the States, we received mostly lovely reviews, but every so often we encountered a review like this one, in which a critic reduces the play to a character study and fails to acknowledge its central metaphor. … A more sophisticated reading of the play yields richer dividends. … The accusation that I treat Charlotte’s connections with the Stasi lightly is salacious. … The play doesn’t accept Charlotte’s own mythology as truth but challenges the veracity of the facts.”

And so on. At least both assessments, pro or con, were made while presumably sober. In his laudatory review in weekly mag the New Statesman, comic-turned-cultural pundit Julian Clary said he wasn’t entirely sure whether his admiration for Wright’s show was rooted in the event itself or in the two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc he quaffed at intermission. Bottoms up!

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