ShenTens: My Top 10 Outdoor Venues This Summer

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This is the time of year when we typically defy Britain’s unpredictable weather and decide that since its summer, we will sit in the outdoors to watch theatre, come rain or come shine (and it’s often the former). And the rain, of course, can enhance the thrill and uniqueness of the event, not just when you’re watching The Tempest during a raging tempest; last summer, an outdoor production of A Little Night Music, staged in Holland Park, saw Janie Dee stepping out for under the canopy that protected the actors into driving rain to sing Send in the Clowns with added poignancy (pictured above).

As one critic put it,

A lot of rain and untold bliss: those were the takeaways from Saturday night’s alfresco Opera Holland Park concert performance of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s eternally glorious 1973 musical A Little Night Music. I doubt any of the 200 or so people in attendance will soon forget that night’s music, and not only because those who stayed the course are very likely still drying out from a belligerently sustained summer squall that mattered little set against the immediacy and necessity of art…. Dee, undaunted, rose to the challenge as if inviting Sondheim at his wisest and most ruminative to do direct battle with nature. “Don’t you love farce?” she sang, emerging from beneath the twin canopies of Holland House to meet the full force of the rain head on. The lyric got a laugh from a crowd lost in admiration for Dee’s stamina, all the while taking on new meaning in a Covid-aware staging that utilised the full cast required for the show but kept them at a necessary remove from one another.”

The mention of COVID, of course, is part of what gave new impetus to staging theatre outdoors, as it is far safer to mingle there than inside. But as it happens only a handful of live venues were able to operate last summer outdoors, with the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park reviving its hit production of Jesus Christ Superstar for a socially distanced audience. A few other pop-up venues turned up, too, including one in the back garden of a pub in Vauxhall, where I saw a wonderful production of Pippin.

This year there’s even more outdoor theatre about, including new bespoke venues created by the RSC at their Stratford-upon-Avon base and another created in a bomb crater in the Suffolk woods.

To LISTEN to this week’s ShenTens podcast, click here:

1 Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park. This venue has previously featured on ShenTens, as of my favourite West End theatres. And I can’t wait to be back there this year, for their production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel that was postponed from last year.

The cast will be led by Carly Bawden and Declan Bennett  (returning to the Open Air after playing the title character in Jesus Christ Superstar) as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow respectively, while Joanna Riding — a stunning Julie Jordan back in the day in the National Theatre’s revival nearly thirty years ago — now plays Nettie Fowler. It will run from July 31-September 25. For full details, visit https://openairtheatre.com/production/carousel

2 Shakespeare’s Globe The ‘wooden O’ of Shakespeare’s Globe — recreating one of Shakespeare’s original theatres in Southwark, beside the Thames — is one of the most beautiful and inspiring theatre spaces on London, providing a real connection with history — and with other audience members. You do not sit silently in the dark here, but are an active participant in the drama.

After last year’s season was entirely aborted owing to COVID, it has already emerged from its enforced hibernation this year, with its revival of the 2019 Globe production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream now playing. The same company — joined by artistic director Michelle Terry as Viola — will also perform a new production of Twelfth Night from July 29, with both shows then running in rep to October 30. Also this summer: a new production of Romeo and Juliet will run in rep from June 26-October 17.

3 RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon. The RSC already has three theatres at its home base of Stratford-upon-Avon, but this summer is adding a fourth: the Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre, a specially constructed outdoor performance space, located in the Swan Theatre Gardens, flanked by the river Avon, where it will stage a new production of The Comedy of Errors (running July 13-September 25, then touring to Nottingham Theatre Royal, Canterbury’s Marlowe and Bradford’s Alhambra).

It was originally due to be part of the RSC’s 2020 season but was postponed owing to the COVID pandemic. The cast combines members of the original 2020 acting company, but with several roles re-cast. Jonathan Broadbent and Greg Haiste retain their roles as, respectively, Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus, whilst Hedydd Dylan (Adrianna), Guy Lewis (Antipholus of Syracuse) and Rowan Polonski (Antipholus of Ephesus) join the company. 

4 Edinburgh International Festival. The world’s largest arts festival — mainly thanks to the vibrant parallel fringe festival, plans of which are still to be announced — is making a spirited attempt to return this year, by going outdoors: it is importing three tent-like structures (hired from Portugal) that have no walls, allowing natural ventilation to sweep across them, and will offer 170 classical & contemporary music, theatre, opera, dance and spoken word performances, including 15 new commissions and premieres. announced.

For theatre fans, highlights include A Grand Night for Singing, a 1993 Broadway revue of great Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, that will be performed by a cast that includes Kim Criswell (who is also directing), Danielle de Niese, Anna-Jane Casey, Damian Humbley and Richard Morrison (from August 8-13 at Edinburgh Academy Junior School; Alan Cumming is Not Acting his Age will see the return of the Scottish actor to his home nation for two days with a new show (Aug 28-29 in the Old College quad), five years after he previously presented Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs at the 2016 International Festival.

For further details and full programme: Theatre: https://www.eif.co.uk/whats-on/category/theatre; Opera https://www.eif.co.uk/whats-on/category/opera; Dance: https://www.eif.co.uk/whats-on/category/dance

5 Kilworth House, south Leicestershire. This amazing tented outdoor theatre, folded into a wooden glade in the grounds of a luxury country hotel, has since 2007 provided an annual season of musicals, performed by West End actors and staged by West End theatre practitioners like Stephen Mear, Nick Winston and Andrew Wright.

Its planned revivals this year of Carousel and Half a Sixpence have been postponed to 2022, but this year they are presenting Kilworth’s Memories of the Musicals, featuring songs from all 19 musicals produced here the theatre opened.

6 Watermill Theatre, Newbury. This venue has previously featured on ShenTens, as of my favourite regional theatre venues. Last year the pandemic forced them outdoors in their gorgeous gardens, where amongst other shows, they staged a concert version of Camelot starring Michael Jibson and Caroline Sheen. This year’s season, again in the gardens, includes the return of last year’s production of The Hound of Baskervilles (currently running to June 19), a new production of As You Like It (June 24-July 24) and a revival of Stiles and Drewe’s Just So (July 30-September 4), a musical inspired by stories of Rudyard Kipling, which originally received its world premiere here back in 1989.

As Paul Hart, artistic director, has commented, “It feels like a perfect moment to celebrate this uplifting musical and to bring it to life once again, this time in our beautiful gardens!” Visit https://www.watermill.org.uk/ for full details.

7 Minack Theatre, Cornwall. Another venue that previously featured on ShenTens, as of my favourite regional theatre venues.

Last summer it hosted professional runs of a touring production of Educating Rita and a new production of The Last 5 Years, but this year will be back with its usual assortment of community, university and amateur showings. For full details, visit https://www.minack.com/minack-theatre.

8 Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. I graduated from Cambridge University 36 years ago, so the annual Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, now in its 34th year, come after me; but I understand the spirit of it, because every May week (which, this being Britain and Cambridge, actually happens in June) saw Shakespeare being staged in assorted college gardens by student companies.

Now this festival does the same thing, offering productions of six Shakespeare plays, running from July 12 to August 28, in the private gardens of King’s College (where you can see The Merry Wives of Windsor and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), St John’s (Richard III and Romeo and Juliet), Downing (The Comedy of Errors) and Trinity (Macbeth). For full details, visit https://cambridgeshakespeare.com/

9 Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester. Storyhouse, Chester’s marvellous multi-purpose arts and library complex, also produces this annual season in a pop-up open air, in-the-round theatre, running now to August 30.

Productions this year include The Merry wife of Windsor, The Jungle Book and Pride and Prejudice. For full details, visit https://www.grosvenorparkopenairtheatre.co.uk/

10 Thorington Theatre, Suffolk. This new outdoor theatre, nestled in the Suffolk Woodlands, was been created on a site where a bomb crater from World War II has left a natural amphitheatre.

A 350 seater theatre has been created out of natural local timbers and between June 18 and August 30 will host Shakespeare (including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet The Tempest, Twelfth Night and Macbeth), plus well-known stand-ups like Simon Amstell, Milton Johns, Sara Pascoe, and Nish Kumar, among other shows. For full details, visit https://www.thoringtontheatre.co.uk/


NEXT EPISODE: June may mean the arrival of the outdoor summer season, but it is also the annual celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride month, where we remember the progress made since the 1969 riots at the Stonewall pub in Greenwich Village which provided a catalyst for the political activism that has led to the massive social changes we’ve seen in the last few decades, including marriage equality in many countries around the world, including the US, Britain and elsewhere.

To mark our own contribution to LGBTQ+ Pride month, I’m going to do a ShenTens of my Top 10 favourite gay plays for the next episode, out on June 18.

AND FINALLY:
Special thanks to my producer Paul Branch; Howard Goodall, for theme music; and Thomas Mann for the logo design

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