Where to see outdoor theatre in the UK
As part of the government’s lifting of lockdown restrictions, outdoor theatres in the UK were allowed to reopen on 11 July. Although many venues would have liked more time to plan outdoor shows, with final confirmation coming partway through the summer season, it does give both artists and the audiences the chance to congregate once again, and for the latter, to explore some of the UK’s beautiful outdoor venues.
The reopening comes with certain safety measures in place, such as: a reduction in venue capacity and limited ticket sales to ensure social distancing; the use of e-ticketing to reduce contact and help with track and trace; deep cleaning of auditoriums, and signage to help with safe entry, exit, and queuing; and singing and the playing of brass and wind instruments limited to professionals only.
Venues were admirably quick to respond, and audiences have certainly embraced the opportunity to return. A recent concert version of the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music at Opera Holland Park sold out in just six minutes!
Here are some of the great shows on offer – and outdoor theatre venues to explore.
It’s a heavenly resurrection at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, north London’s verdant gem, with the return of a recent hit, Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert. Timothy Sheader’s Olivier Award-winning revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock-opera musical was first staged here in 2016, had a second coming in 2017, then played at the Barbican and in the US.
The same creative team has marshalled this interval-free, 90-minute concert version, with Tom Scutt utilising Soutra Gilmour’s metal bleachers set from last year’s Evita – if anything, showcasing Drew McOnie’s taut choreography even more effectively. The performers keep two metres apart, while the audience has been reduced from 1,256 to 390. However, there’s also a live relay to a big screen on the lawn, seating another 5,000 over the run (at £20 a ticket).
Double casting allows for more performers to get in on the action, and the company includes: Tyrone Huntley, Declan Bennett, Ricardo Afonso, Nathan Amzi, Anoushka Lucas, Shaq Taylor, David Thaxton, Ivan De Freuitas, Pepe Nufrio, Cedric Neal, and Maimuna Memon. Remember to bring both wet weather gear and sun cream – the weather is the one element out of everyone’s control.
This breathtaking venue in Cornwall is dramatic all on its own. Minack means a rocky place (“menyek” in Cornish), and the theatre is perched on the cliffs above a steep gully, with seating on grass or concrete terrace overlooking the Atlantic Ocean – just a few miles from Land’s End. A socially distanced auditorium seats 250 (instead of 700).
Only two days after the government gave the go-ahead for outdoor theatre, the Minack hosted its first production: a family-friendly storytelling show from Squashbox Theatre. There are more delightful Squashbox productions to come, as well as Horrible Histories – Barmy Britain, The Wind in the Willows, Mischief Movie Night (from the creators of The Play That Goes Wrong), Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, and a concert from West End leading man Alistair Brammer.
But the headliner is the 40th-anniversary staging of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, starring Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson. The show’s national tour was interrupted by Covid-19, and it’s fantastic to see it getting a run at the Minack – albeit it with a simplified set, and new 90-minute run time.
Garden Theatre at The Eagle
This newly refurbished, socially distanced outdoor theatre space at the Eagle Pub in Vauxhall is hosting Fanny & Stella, a musical by Glenn Chandler (creator of Taggart) and Charles Miller. This new semi-covered al fresco spot seats a socially distanced audience of 50, and is an apt location for this fascinating slice of queer history.
In Victorian London, Frederick William Park and Ernest Boulton used to transform into the glamorous “sisters” Fanny and Stella as part of an amateur theatrical act, and then continue the charade around town. They were put on trial in 1871, but the case ended in acquittal. Chandler and Miller tell this incredible tale in jaunty music-hall fashion, with plenty of sly gags and high-kicking, raunchy numbers.
The joy of most outdoor theatres is the sense that the auditorium is born out of its natural surroundings, and the same is true here, with David Shields’s design incorporating pot plants – plus the rather makeshift space feels in keeping with the vaudevillian performances within the show. It’s a welcome bit of escapism, as well as a cheering ode to theatrical courage.
London’s new venue next to the iconic Battersea Power Station, the Turbine Theatre is providing outdoor theatre on a nearby Thames-side jetty, where audience members can book pallet seating or deckchairs. This socially distanced offering ranges from musical theatre and concerts to Shakespeare and family-friendly shows.
Arlene Phillips will direct a concert staging of rock musical Hair, with a cast that includes Matthew Croke, Layton Williams, Millie O’Connell, Grace Mouat, Jordan Luke Cage, and Danielle Fiamanya. There’s also The Best of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, featuring cast members from Jersey Boys, musical theatre stars in the “Roles We’ll Never Play” concert, rock/pop piece The Final Countdown, and West End performers presenting hits from shows like We Will Rock You, Bat Out of Hell, and Beautiful – The Carole King Story.
New musical Catfish will premiere here, and there are performances from The Femmes and The Barricade Boys. Shakespeare offerings include Two Gentlemen of Verona and Macbeth, plus there’s Horrible Histories – Barmy Britain, family fare with One Duck Down and Aesop’s Fables, pirate summer pantomime Black Sails, a one-man Great Expectations, and award-winning musical improv from The Showstoppers.
The Welsh theatre is now offering outdoor performances on a hill beside the venue itself, with limited capacity audiences and social distancing in line with Welsh government guidance. Tickets for all events are just £5, and they include: Tim Price’s new comedy English; family-friendly, fairytale musical show Three; spoken word and soul music in Orpheus; and musical theatre from Welsh of the West End: Live.
There’s also a history of hilarious women in musicals in Vikki Stone and Natasha Barnes’s Funny Gals, and concerts from Mared Williams, Tayo Aluko, Kidsmoke, the Tip Top singers and more. It’s a great way to support this usually thriving regional venue.
Although the Globe unfortunately isn’t able to host performances quite yet, it has reopened for guided tours. It’s a wonderful way to learn more about the history of this iconic venue, as well as London theatre and the Bard himself – plus you get to stand on one of the world’s most famous stages. Exhibitions include costumes worn by celebrated actors, as well as backstage photographs from Marc Brenner. The Swan Bar & Restaurant have also reopened, so you can brush up your Shakespeare and then toast him in style.
The Maltings Theatre
The Roman theatre of Verulamium in St Albans is hosting an open-air theatre festival. Appropriately for this historic venue – with ruins dating back to 140 A.D. – there’s plenty of Shakespeare on offer, including The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V, The Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet. Plus, musical mystery with Sherlock Holmes, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S Pinafore.
With strict social distancing and safety measures, the venue can accommodate 220 audience members in its atmospheric amphitheatre, and all performances run straight through without an interval.
Brighton Open Air Theatre
This charming regional venue continues to grow in popularity since its foundation in 2015, so audiences will be thrilled to see that it’s mustered a full programme of work in record time. Productions include Abigail’s Party, The Wind in the Willows, The Mikado, Mischief Movie Night, Twelfth Night, The Magic Flute, and Sherlock Holmes.
It’s also great news for comedy fans, with “stand-up under the stars” from Paul Sinha, Mark Steel, Tim Key, Kiri Pritchard-Mclean, Bridget Christie, Shappi Korsandi, Rachel Parris, Marcus Brigstocke, and more.
Kerry Ellis, who originated lead roles in Wicked and We Will Rock You, joins two former Phantoms in an open-air musical theatre concert at Broadlands Estate in Romsey. Audience members at this park venue are advised to bring something to sit on, like a blanket or picnic chair, a torch, and waterproof layers in the event of bad weather.
This fun event, which runs over three nights, also stars Earl Carpenter and John Owen-Jones, who both led Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera in London, and also starred together in Les Misérables. They’re joined by another Phantom favourite – Katie Hall, who played Christine – making it a real West End reunion.