10 of the UK’s best outdoor theatre shows this summer

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Make the most of the return of live performance this summer – without the anxiety of spending time indoors with a crowd of strangers – with an outdoor theatre show. These venues don’t require negative Covid tests because they’re fully outside, but most have significantly reduced capacities (at least until social distancing restrictions are eased), so don’t dally – tickets are likely to sell out quicker than usual.

Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Perthshire

Pitlochry Festival Theatre from across the River Tummel, Perthshire, Scotland, UK.
Pitlochry Festival Theatre from across the River Tummel

PFT began life in a tent, so it’s fitting that the theatre is celebrating its 70th anniversary with a move to the great outdoors. The Highlands venue is creating three new permanent performance spaces in its lovely gardens on the banks of the River Tummel, including an 80-seat amphitheatre, a theatre-ship that will double as a children’s play area, and a riverbank bandstand. Among the shows running this summer are the premiere of Adventures with the Painted People (10 June-4 July) by David Greig, a love story about a Roman officer and a Pictish woman; a new adaptation of The Wind in the Willows performed on the riverbank, and a family promenade experience inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (both July-Sept).
The Wind in the Willows tickets from £9, pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

Iris Theatre, The Actors’ Church, London

Pre-Covid production of The Three Musketeers at Iris Theatre, The Actors’ Church, London
Pre-Covid production of The Three Musketeers at Iris Theatre. Photograph: Nick Rutter

The garden of St Paul’s, Covent Garden – AKA the Actors’ Church – is, in the normal course of things, a favourite of office workers (remember those?) seeking a bit of peace and greenery during their lunch breaks. Tucked away behind the touristy Piazza, each summer this sleeping beauty is awoken by a season of promenade shows that do the many actors memorialised here proud. This year resident company Iris Theatre has commissioned five breakout companies to create new work, including one-woman storytelling show Shoes to Fill(5-10 July) and Arthur/Merlin, a play with songs inspired by Arthurian legend (4-22 Aug). Sundays see irreverent takes on Shakespeare.
Shoes to Fill tickets from £15, iristheatre.com

Nevill Holt Opera, Leicestershire

Nevill Holt Opera Sculpture and Allen Jones’s Dancers (2014) at the Nevill Holt Opera, Leicestershire.

This annual summer opera festival, held on a 13th-century estate, is usually an indoor affair. This year, however, productions will be staged on a temporary auditorium in the gardens of Neville Holt Hall. Audiences can opt for lawn (lawn tickets are free for under-18s), covered or open-air seating for afternoon performances of Verdi’s La Traviata (4-10 Aug) and Mozart’s Don Giovanni (19-25 Aug). The award-winning landscaped gardens, which are dotted with sculptures by the likes of Antony Gormley and Marc Quinn, are open to audiences two hours before the show. Bring a picnic for the 90-minute dining interval or book a meal in one of the pop-up restaurants.
All tickets from £35, dining from £65pp, nevillholtopera.co.uk

Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford

Royal Shakespeare Theatre reflecting in the River Avon at dusk. Stratford Upon Avon, Warwickshire, UK.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre reflecting in the River Avon at dusk. Photograph: Tim Gainey/Alamy

The RSC dreamed up this 500-seat outdoor theatre on the banks of the Avon as a way of tempting audiences who might be nervous about returning to indoor shows (its indoor theatres will reopen in the autumn). Listen out for the distant honking of Stratford’s famous swans as you watch The Comedy of Errors (13 July-26 Sept), rescheduled from its original March 2020 run. Babes-in-arms are welcome at all performances and there are free family activities during the school summer holidays.
The Comedy of Errors tickets from £20, rsc.org.uk

Thorington Theatre, Suffolk

Thorington Theatre, Suffolk

The Suffolk countryside is pocked by second world war bombs craters. One of these natural amphitheatres is now home to an outdoor auditorium, opening this summer. Created entirely from timber coppiced from the surrounding woodland, with seating and stage built around several soaring pine trees, it’s hard to imagine a more sylvan scene. The eclectic programme (18 June-30 Aug) includes community Shakespeare, professional touring companies and big-name stand-ups, with a new show on the roster practically every day. Most fitting is surely Arbor the Tree, a family show featuring a three-metre tree puppet (28 Aug). There’s a bar serving local wines, beers and juices.
Arbor the Tree tickets from £12, thoringtontheatre.co.uk

Minack Theatre, Porthcurno, Cornwall

Minack Theatre, Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, United Kingdom.
Photograph: Sebastian Wasek/Alamy

It’s hard to imagine a theatrical backdrop more spectacular than the granite cliffs and bright-blue waves of Cornwall’s Porthcurno Bay. Local theatre enthusiast Rowena Cade built this extraordinary auditorium by hand, carving its terraced seating from the rock of her cliff-top garden. The auditorium and gardens are open daily, with performances – of theatre, music and comedy – now taking place most evenings. In the daytimes there’s storytelling for families. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (24 Aug-2 Sept), an adaptation of the Joan Aiken novel, includes folk songs and original live music. Check out the theatre’s webcam, where a live stream from the site gives a flavour of the delights on offer.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase tickets from £10, minack.co

Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester

Pre-Covid era production at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester, UK.
Pre-Covid era production at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre

Grosvenor Park’s formal avenues and sweeping lawns are a charming escape from the busyness of Chester city centre at any time of year. Summer offers the additional attraction of a pop-up open-air auditorium hosting in-the-round shows. Theatre producer Storyhouse prides itself in investing in new writing, so this year, along with Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor (4 June-30 Aug), you’ll find new adaptations of The Jungle Book (29 May-30 Aug) and Pride and Prejudice (9 July-30 Aug). A great option for families, as kids go free with paying adults.
All tickets from £30, grosvenorparkopenairtheatre.co.uk

The Willow Globe, Powys

The Willow Globe, Powys, Wales, UK.
Photograph: Tchad Blake

This scaled-down version of Shakespeare’s Globe is a living structure whose willow walls creak and rustle with every breath of wind. Planted in 2006 and opened a year later, this community venue on a working farm comprises a thrust stage and bench seating, where audiences come together to see twists on Shakespeare, as well as storytelling and music. This year’s programme, which began with a performance from Mid-Wales Opera in May and continues with the Willow Globe Community company’s take on Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (25-27 June), also includes King Lear Retold, a stripped down solo performance by the charismatic Debs Newbold (15 July). Arrive early for the woodland trail of Shakespeare quotes and stop to picnic in the orchard. Kids will enjoy pond-dipping and encounters with the farm’s resident sheep.
King Lear Retold tickets from £10, shakespearelink.org.uk

Cambridge Shakespeare festival

Gardens at St John’s College, Cambridge, UK, which will host productions of Romeo and Juliet and Richard III.
Gardens at St John’s College, Cambridge, which will host productions of Romeo and Juliet and Richard III. Photograph: Jonathan McManus/Getty Images

This annual festival, which celebrates its 34th anniversary this year, is a rare opportunity to get a glimpse behind the high walls of some of the university’s private gardens. Productions – this year’s programme which runs from 12 July to 28 August and includes six of Shakespeare’s most popular plays – tend towards the traditional, featuring full period costume and live Elizabethan music. Seating is first come, first served (with social distancing), though there’s plenty of space on the lawn if you don’t arrive in time to nab a chair. Picnics are welcome, and an excellent way to make the most of your visit to these gorgeous landscaped college gardens, some of which aren’t even open to the colleges’ own students.
Tickets from £18, cambridgeshakespeare.com

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London

2018 production of The Turn of The Screw at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
2018 production of The Turn of The Screw at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

A visit to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is a genuinely transporting experience. As dusk falls over the auditorium, and the surrounding trees are lit up by light thrown from the stage, you’re magicked away from the bustle of central London. Those booking for Carousel (31 July-25 Sept), the latest in the theatre’s acclaimed series of reinventions of classic musicals, can also avail themselves of pre-theatre lunch or dinner on a covered terrace overlooking the bar, followed by dessert and coffee at the interval. Also on the programme this year is Romeo & Juliet (17 June-24 July) and two family shows, Anansi the Spider (7-24 July), a retelling of the classic West African and Caribbean folk tales, and Dragons and Mythical Beasts (13 Aug-5 Sept), a new show from the makers of Dinosaur World Live.
Carousel tickets from £23, dining £35, openairtheatre.com