Open House London is a once a year happening. It is the one time each year that buildings not normally open to the public, fling their doors open – for free. This architectural extravaganza includes more than 500 sites in services ranging from art, cinema and architecture to health, sports and transportation to name but a few categories.

Children's Center Play Area

I hopped on the Tube (London’s subway) to take in a children’s center. I debarked at Camden Town and was immediately immersed into a sea of humanity. The Tube was crowded, but nothing like the crowd in the streets! Thousands and thousands of people were walking along taking in the shops, sights, sounds and smells. It is a scene I will revisit in the future. I wound my way through the masses to get to my destination. I was supposed to follow Camden Road, but mistakenly followed Camden High, so had to backtrack on Camden Street to get there. (There is also a Camden Lock, Mews, Square and Lane, but fortunately they weren’t close enough for me to get lost on.)  A few miles and 30 minutes later I finally found my site – the Agar Children’s Center.

The Center was nestled in a dense array of apartment buildings, what we might call projects in the States. One of the building’s architects was on hand to provide tours. She worked on the building whilst she was pregnant, and now her child plays at the center. A nice circle.  The Centre is a redesign and refurbishment of an existing community center. There are two components to the Centre, one for children and one for the general community. The two uses are joined by a courtyard in the middle. There are a variety of indoor and outdoor areas for children to play in, which are designed to be age-appropriate and engage the senses.  There are snug areas for babies, more open areas for toddlers, and even more expansive areas for young children. There are mazes, sensory rooms, mock kitchens, gardens, and reading and writing areas. I was delighted when the architect brought us up to the see the roof – it was alive with sod and grasses! This feature, along with the thought and care given to how children would play in and use the building, are elements that garnered the Agar Children’s Centre the Camden Building Quality Award. (Yet another Camden!)  

Deciding I needed some age-appropriate play of my own, a few days later I went out to see what was happening in the world of theatre in London. Theatre is part of the life-blood of London. In fact, one of the tourist guides proclaims that ‘London’s creative industries generate an estimated annual revenue of 21 Billion GBP* making them second only to business services in terms of economic clout.’ (*This is equal to about $38 million.)

At 2PM on Monday I picked my husband Paul up from his office and we headed off to check out ‘what was on’ at the National Theatre and the Old Vic. The National, founded by Lawrence Olivier, is one of the great theatres in the world. The Old Vic has recaptured hearts of locals and tourists by the ownership and involvement of Kevin Spacey – one of my all-time favorite actors. (If you want to see why, I recommend seeing ‘American Beauty’ and ‘The Usual Suspects.’)  

Children's Center Music Room

Both theatres are located on the south bank of the Thames. We decided to walk through the renowned shopping district of Covent Gardens to get there. As we strolled by stores with jewelry, clothing and Lush cosmetics, we heard someone singing opera. Live. We followed the music (always a good way to live life in my mind) and stumbled upon a street performer singing opera to the customers of an open air restaurant. He was wearing the jacket of one woman diner, another woman’s shoes, another’s sunglasses, and tried to take a gentleman’s pint of beer – all while singing opera. (The gentleman would not give in to him, and so he took his female companion’s glass of wine instead.)  People gathered along the balcony to listen and laugh. Everyone was thoroughly entertained by the Opera unfolding in front of them.  Opera appealing to the masses is not something I am used to, and I was delighted to see it.

We continued through Covent Garden to the Thames, stumbling onto the Savoy Hotel (where something or someone was going on judging on the crowd and traffic) and then crossed over the river to get to the South Bank and its theatres.

As soon we crossed the river we noticed banners proclaiming theatre shows for 12 GBP (or $20).  We ambled through an outdoor book stall and paid homage to a statue of Olivier before we climbed into the huge National Theatre complex.  (The last time we were there we saw Jonathan Price.)

We chatted up the box office attendant to learn about the shows and ticket prices. Tickets were expensive, but there were ways around it. If you were under the age of 26, you could register with the theatre and receive 5 GBP tickets ($8) for any show. If you went to the box office when they opened, you could get 12 GBP tickets ($20) for that evening’s show as long as they lasted.  We wandered through the complex and its coffee shops and stumbled upon several actor/director conferences before we found our way out. The ‘live’ in ‘live theatre’ was definitely present there. 

Children's Center Sensory Room

We then walked to the Old Vic. They were in previews for Irish playwright JM Synge’s ‘Playboy of the Western World’ – a play that incited riots after it premiered at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. (Have theatre-induced riots happened since then? I think not.)  Again, in large signs everywhere were announcements stating that people under the age of 26 got tickets for 12 GBP.  We inquired about tickets for later in the month, and were told we could get great seats and half price tickets – if we wanted to go that evening. We decided we did, and we were glad. It was a terrific production featuring an amazing actress from an Irish acting dynasty, a British television star, and an award-winning stage actress. We were amazed at how large and young the audience was compared to theatre audiences on our town. Maybe the discounts, along with the tourists and perhaps the stars, made theatre more accessible to young people? Or maybe it was the fact that they sold ice cream in the aisles during intermission? Whatever, it was inspiring to see a new generation enjoying an old classic.

Children's Center Maze

Speaking of old classics, on Wednesday we had tickets to see Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Old Globe Theatre. We were groundlings, which meant we watched the show while standing on the ground in front of the stage – an area that is not covered by a roof. It was fun to be a groundling. There was sort of a festival air with people breaking out their sandwiches and beers, and moving about to get a better view of the action. The production was outstanding – even for those of us who were ‘out standing’ for the entire three-hour show. We were glad it didn’t rain! Again, we were surprised by the size and age of the audience. Granted many of them were tourists and students, but still, a full house with a lot of young folks in the middle of the week? 

As Shakespeare says in ‘Hamlet’ –‘the play’s the thing’. In London it applies to both the play of children and the plays of theatre masters. I am glad to be in a place that honors both!

Children's Center Roof - Possible Performance Venue?