A glimpse of daffodils or bluebells in London parks, and thoughts turn to outdoor theatre. As April turns to May, London’s outdoor theatre season begins with both Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe opening their doors, and if you are willing to travel a little further afield, then the Brighton, Norfolk, and Norwich Festivals have plenty to attract those who enjoy their theatre alfresco. Mind you, it might still be wise to wrap up warm. Even on the balmiest day, a hot water bottle in your bag for after the sun goes down can be a lifesaver at the delightful Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
The latter’s programme begins this year with Ola Ince’s revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s one-act musical Once On This Island, which is essentially a rewrite of The Little Mermaid, relocated to the Caribbean, and sees peasant girl Ti Moune save the life of rich kid Daniel, scion of a French colonist family. I’ve only seen it once in a less-than-successful staging, but this sweetly tuneful show is ripe for reinvention, and Ince is the woman with the boldness to do it. If the sun shines brightly enough, it won’t need Georgia Lowe’s design to convince you that you are in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, over at the Globe, Elle While directs the wonderful Michelle Terry as Puck in a revival of that quintessential comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
One of the pleasures of watching theatre outside is when environment, weather, light, and performance all come together, and nobody can quite tell what was planned and what was a happy accident. A plane suddenly visible passing over the top of the Globe or a bird hopping across the stage at the Open Air Theatre bring an element of unpredictability to the event, which often charms audiences because it reminds them of the liveness of what they are witnessing. The fact that you can often also see the other members of the audience adds to the enjoyment. They are like an extra character.
Part of the point of outdoor theatre is that when the sun shines and the drama grips, there is something much more relaxing about watching a show outside than there is in an indoor theatre. The last few weeks have seen a constant stream of media stories about audiences behaving badly in London and regional theatres. Many of the UK’s playhouses are uncomfortable places, so perhaps it is no wonder that tempers sometimes fray and audiences behave badly when tightly packed in an enclosed space.
From Midsummer Mechanicals at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
The pleasure of outdoor theatre is that claustrophobia dissipates, people have more space, and so are more relaxed. A great deal of outdoor Shakespeare in and around London on the grounds of parks and stately homes, takes place with the audience eating a picnic and drinking, but there are seldom the lost tempers and flashpoints that there are in indoor theatres. Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s excellent pre-show and interval catering is as much part of the evening out as the play. One does not diminish the other in any way.
In fact, with the exception of its high summer revival of that delicious camp classic, La Cage aux Folles, directed by the Open Air’s artistic director, Timothy Sheader, which opens at the end of July, it’s good to see Regent’s Park bending over to cater for a family audience this summer. The daytime performances of Ben Okri’s new fairy tale Every Leaf a Hallelujah, starting in late May just in time for half term, would fit in well with a day spent in the park and Robin Hood: The Legend. Re-written is a family show (playing from June 17) that comes from the pen of Kneehigh favourite Carl Grose, who wrote the cult musical The Grinning Man, and it’s directed by Melly Still, who brings magic to everything she does.
Over at the Globe, family audiences will be catered for during the summer holidays with Midsummer Mechanicals, the Globe’s already tried and tested entertaining 90-minute version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream aimed at anyone over five. You could also start them pretty young (maybe 10 or over) on The Comedy of Errors, which begins in early May. Strictly for the adults is Abigail Graham’s revival of Macbeth (from July 21) and Ellen McDougall’s late summer revival of As You Like It, which of course takes place largely outside in the Forest of Arden. Which makes the Globe, with its roof open to the skies, the perfect setting for this exuberant comedy of romance and redemption.
Cover image of Gabrielle Brooks as Ti Moune in Once On This Island at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Design and Photography by festcreative.com. For a full list of outdoor theatre in London this summer visit here.