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See summer shows at London's outdoor theatres

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Summer is now in full swing, and that means the outdoor theatre season is upon us. London has lots of amazing options for combining entertainment with basking in the sunshine – that is, when the British weather is behaving.

Whether you fancy some authentic Shakespeare, a musical, a family show or some naughty cabaret, there’s something for everyone in this al fresco season. It’s a special experience to gather together in an outdoor arena or event space, seeing the light gradually change over the course of the evening.

So, here is our definitive guide to summer outdoor entertainment – plus some top tips on delicious food and drink options, and what to wear to stay cool, warm, dry or anything else while braving the great outdoors.

Shakespeare's Globe - 750 - LT - 290422

Shakespeare’s Globe

If you’re a fan of the Bard, you must make a beeline for the Globe this summer. This extraordinary reconstruction of a 16th-century theatre, on London’s Bankside, gives you the closest experience imaginable to actually being in the audience of a Shakespeare play when it was first performed.

The 2022 summer season at the Globe has a fantastic variety of plays, including the romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing, political drama Julius Caesar, magical journey The Tempest, a female take on Henry VIII, Kathryn Hunter reprising her King Lear, and two new productions: I, Joan, about the great Joan of Arc, and the family-friendly spin-off Midsummer Mechanicals.

You can sit on the wooden benches which surround the thrust stage, arranged in three galleries, or – if you have the stamina – you can be a “groundling” and stand in the yard. The latter means you can get right up to the stage, and most likely enjoy some fun audience participation as the performers move amongst you.

If you do choose the yard, remember that it’s completely open to the elements – whether heat wave or thunderstorm. So, don a sunhat and plenty of sun cream if it’s warm, or bring layers and a waterproof mac if it looks ominous. You can’t use an umbrella or you’ll block the view of the audience behind you.

The seating is covered, so you won’t get rained on there, but it is still an open-air space – so layers are a good call once again. You can also rent cushions to help you withstand the hard bench seating, or try bringing along a thick jumper or padded jacket for added comfort.

There are plenty of food and drink options at the excellent Swan Bar and Restaurant, including brunch, afternoon tea and a well-priced pre-theatre menu. Treat yourself, and get the full Globe experience.

Regent's Park - 750 - LT - 080322

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Over in north London, there’s an enchanting time to be had in the heart of Regent’s Park. This leafy wonderland contains an open-air theatre space nestled among the trees – and you might well get a cameo appearance mid-show from a friendly duck. As it grows dark, the bar is lit up with twinkling fairy lights: a truly magical touch.

Regent’s Park usually has a bit of everything in their season, and 2022 is no different. There are two contrasting (though both dog-featuring) musicals: the peppy pink-clad Legally Blonde, and the world premiere of the 101 Dalmatians musical – the latter particularly apt since Dodie Smith set part of her beloved novel in the park. This year also sees a new retelling of the epic Antigone by Inua Ellams.

Like the Globe, this is a proper outdoor theatre space, although here the whole arena – including the seating – is uncovered. That means being really vigilant about protection from sun or rain. The performers here are incredibly plucky: if it does pour, they take a quick break while you shelter in the bar, then they dry off the stage and get right back out there. The show must go on!

The raked auditorium is surrounded by the lush grass and trees of the Inner Circle, and you get a great view from any of the 1,240 seats. This is actually one of the largest theatres in London, but it still feels wonderfully intimate, and the action often spills out into the audience.

It’s definitely worth arriving early so you can soak up the atmosphere and enjoy a drink or nibble. There are menus themed around each show at the Covered Dining space (you’ll need to book in advance), plus delicious burgers at The Grill and pizzas from The Pizza Oven. Or you can go for a family picnic, luxury hamper, gin tasting, or a Pimm’s at the bar. Cheers!

Underbelly Festival - 750 - LT - 230622

Underbelly Festival

This year, there’s double the fun with this popular pop-up festival. You’ll find Underbelly action at two different central London sites: Earl’s Court and Cavendish Square. In both cases, the performances take place in a giant tent, while street food stalls and bustling bars are arranged around them.

Highlights at the 2022 festival include the jaw-dropping, Olivier Award-winning La Clique. This spectacular show has everything from risqué burlesque, stylish cabaret and naughty comedy to gravity-defying circus acts like aerial acrobats and roller skating. You’ll find big laughs at London Comedy Allstars, too, as leading stand-ups take to the stage, and a subversive spin on Disney with parody musical Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch.

There’s also the Australian drag sensations Yummy, who celebrate gender fluidity and queer beauty in their provocative, empowering circus and cabaret act. Yummy wowed at the 2019 Underbelly and now return with new show Iconic.

Underbelly’s varied bill means it attracts a fantastic range of audiences, and it’s a great place to meet up with friends and hang out before or after shows. You get the buzz of London along with the intimacy of an arty community as everyone gathers together for this beloved festival.

Plus the food at Underbelly is properly mouth-watering. It’s all independent food stalls – everything from top-notch steak burgers and fresh fish to Tandoori specialities, plus an array of seasonal cocktails and a superior selection of wine and beers.

The performance tents offer some shelter, so you don’t need to worry too much about covering up or shedding layers while you’re inside. But it’s still a good idea to prepare for all eventualities – particularly if you want to keep enjoying the party long into the night, without worrying about what surprises the British summer weather will spring next.

Photo credit: Legally Blonde at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (Photo courtesy of production)

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