Best of British: Open air theatres

BY Laura Dean-Osgood

1st Jan 2015 Travel

Best of British: Open air theatres

All the world’s a stage, and we have some of the best and most beautiful of the open-air variety right here in Britain.

Minack Theatre


Minack Outdoor Theatre

Perched high on the cliffs in the village of Porthcurno, Cornwall, this spectacular theatre offers the very best in windswept backdrops. 

The famous playhouse was created in the 1930s by visionary theatre lover Rowena Cade, who purchased the minack (Cornish for “rocky”) land for £100 to build her house. After staging several plays at her home, she made more space for the audience in her garden. With the help of just a few men, the Roman-inspired seats were carved from granite taken from fallen boulders. Since then—despite an interruption for the war—the theatre has gone from strength to strength.

The Minack runs shows until September, when you can take in a play against the stunning coastline, and even spot a dolphin or two.


Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre


Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

This most regal of green spaces is very much a fixture of summer in the city—and surrounded entirely by parkland, it’s a real treat for culture lovers looking to escape the capital’s busy streets.

Each summer, almost 140,000 people visit the park to watch one of the four annual plays and to take in the electric atmosphere as the sun sets on the 1,250-seat auditorium. This year, the schedule includes J M Barrie’s Peter Pan and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

With the stage and seating both completely uncovered, the actors and the audience are left at the mercy of the British weather—although this hasn’t deterred stars such as Zoë Wanamaker, Jeremy
Irons and Benedict Cumberbatch from performing here.


Brownsea Open Air Theatre


Brownsea Open Air Theatre

The only access to this theatre is by boat, and it’s a trip that thousands of punters have made in the 52 years since its foundation.

Plays are staged on Brownsea Island off the coast of Dorset every year, and volunteers travel there each June to begin building the set. A haven for wildlife, the island is much-loved by locals, who are committed
to ensuring it thrives.

“The people who do Brownsea year after year do it for the love of the island,” says BOAT director Denise Mallender. “We’re a registered charity, and we help the work on the islands by holding a regular Shakespeare play.”

This season, Brownsea is the perfect setting for The Tempest, the Bard’s celebrated tale of shipwrecks and storms. 


Rutland Open Air Theatre


Rutland Open Air Theatre, Rutland

This theatre, in the very centre of the country, is home to the Stamford Shakespeare Company, who this year celebrate their 39th year of outdoor plays with performances of Romeo and Juliet and Henry V.

In 1977, with just £78 in the bank, the SSC acquired derelict Tolethorpe Hall, the grounds of which form the beautiful surroundings of the theatre today. The historic settings are a big part of the theatre’s charm, with a natural amphitheatre creating the performance area and interval drinks served in the hall’s orangery.

In all its years, the Rutland OAT has never cancelled a performance owing to rain—and although the stage and actors are left open to the elements, the audience can shelter in the covered auditorium.


The Dell


The Dell Outdoor Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Where better to spend a summer’s afternoon watching Shakespeare’s work than in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon? At weekends until August, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Avonbank Gardens play host to a packed schedule of lively, free performances from aspiring actors across the country. 

“The Dell offers amateur and semi-professional theatre companies, as well as schools and colleges, a fantastic chance to perform at and work with the RSC,” explains Dell co-ordinator Laura Keating,
who puts a call out each year to performers looking to step out of their comfort zone and perform at the prestigious venue.

This year, The Dell celebrates its 10th anniversary. Along with plays, guests can enjoy live music events, craft stalls and exhibitions.


Scarborough Open Air Theatre


Scarborough Open Air Theatre

Sit on top of the natural amphitheatre at this coastal venue and savour the sea air and sights of Europe’s largest open-air playhouse. Created within the natural contours of the land, the stage and seating are separated by a lake, which has been creatively incorporated into the performances in previous years.

“It’s a unique venue,” says Janet Deacon, area director of Welcome to Yorkshire. “The natural amphitheatre and the lake are simply magical on a balmy summer’s evening.”

The venue was built in the 1930s and enjoyed great popularity as a host for musicals such as The King and I and concerts by the Scarborough Operatic Society, but the curtain fell for the last time in 1986. After major refurbishment, the theatre reopened in 2010, and now plays host to concerts by big-name artists such as Elaine Page and Tom Jones, who are both performing this month.


Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre 


Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre

“There’s something truly unique about performing in the open air,” says Alex Clifton, artistic director of Chester Performs, who run Grosvenor Park. “At the glory (or mercy) of the elements, the audience and actors, are all in it together.”

The only full-time professional open-air theatre company outside of London has attracted high-profile performers, and in 2014 the outdoor shows at the theatre were performed to 20,000 people—not bad for an endeavour that’s just in its fifth year.

This season, it’s running a schedule of classic plays. Pull up a deckchair or sprawl out on a picnic rug and take in a show.