This summer, watching an outdoor theatre performance or film might sound like a novelty – but many of Britain’s first playhouses were actually open-air.
In the 1500s, a young William Shakespeare performed on outdoor stages with courtyards as auditoriums: tickets usually cost a penny, though you’d have to jostle for a good standing spot. For tuppence, you could watch from the galleries – but a wooden stool would cost a penny more.
These days, while ticket prices have risen, so has the comfort factor, with cushioned seats available, guaranteed good views, and even the promise of blankets and hot chocolate on chilly nights. In case of rain, there are often awnings or canopies to shelter under – and when the sun shines, that interval ice cream tastes all the sweeter. We’re not quite as hardy as we were in Shakespeare’s day, but this is entertainment to be enjoyed, not endured!
And, of course, outdoor shows and screenings may be a necessity for a while too. When it comes to making performances Covid-safe, open-air events are preferable to indoor ones: good ventilation halts the spread of the virus, seats can be arranged to suit household ‘bubbles’, and there are far fewer touch-points to worry about.
What to expect at an outdoor theatre or cinema
The UK Government has now lifted the legal requirement for face coverings, but you may still be asked to wear one if you’re not exempt – at least when you’re not seated. The same goes for social distancing, and ‘checking in’ with the NHS Covid app: each venue is entitled to set its own guidance (and will likely provide full details when you book).
At some performances, food and drinks may be available. They might be served at your seat, or only sold if ordered in advance: again, this depends on the company’s own regulations. At all of the below venues, toilet facilities are convenient and refreshments can be purchased.
Seats are usually provided, but in some cases you may be expected to bring your own – or ‘upgrade’ your ticket to hire one. Other upgrade options might include interval drinks, premium views, blankets or a rain cover: check when you book, as it is often cheaper to secure such extras in advance.
Unfortunately, few venues offer refunds if the weather is inclement. If it’s torrential, you may get your money back, but don’t expect any compensation if it’s drizzling. If you test positive for Covid before a performance, or are instructed to isolate, your refund/rebooking rights may also differ between companies – so always check the small print for details.
The best outdoor theatres and cinemas for 2021
Minack Theatre, Cornwall
Carved into the cliffs of south-west Cornwall, the Minack delivers drama from all directions. Here, some of the country’s top performers gather for concerts, plays and stand-up against a backdrop of crashing Atlantic waves and sorbet-pink sunsets. This season, look out for comedy from Adam Kay (6 August), sea shanties from Fisherman's Friends (3 September), and rousing concertos from Proms at the Minack (2-5 October) – plus much more.
The Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
On the banks of the Avon River, mere steps from Shakespeare’s Stratford birthplace, the RSC has created this temporary outdoor playhouse for summer 2021. Until 26 September, it's presenting The Comedy Of Errors – as well as free workshops, pop-up performances and family-friendly events throughout late July and August. You’ll need to be quick: this is the company’s first full-scale live production in over a year, and tickets are selling fast.
Saltdean Lido, Brighton
This gorgeous Art Deco lido is rolling out the classics this summer, with poolside screenings of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (7 August), Star Wars: A New Hope (24 August) and Jaws (3 September). They’re hosted by Cinestock, as part of its outdoor summer programme throughout Sussex and Surrey; other highlights include Steven Spielberg’s E.T. at Gatton Park (28 August), raucous comedy Bridesmaids at Preston Manor (18 September), and action-thriller Tenet at Newhaven Fort (24 September).
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
Blenheim is best-known as Winston Churchill’s childhood home, but this magnificent Baroque estate has also hosted movie stars galore – from Charlie Chaplin to Sylvester Stallone – and served as a filming location for Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible. This summer, its vast courtyard will feature an outdoor cinema, with screenings of Bohemian Rhapsody (13 August), a sing-along version of The Greatest Showman (14 August) and Some Like It Hot (15 August).
The Willow Globe Theatre, Powys
Woven from willow trees, this rural outdoor theatre is literally alive: lush and leafy in summer, with a chorus of birdsong at every performance. Evenings here are informal and intimate, with a small audience and a low wooden stage. The programme is exclusively Shakespeare, ranging from unaltered scripts to modern adaptations: this summer features Twelfth Night (13 August), Henry IV (28 August) and Romeo and Juliet (4 September).
Margam Country Park, Port Talbot
As if its Gothic Tudor mansion, Cistercian monastery and 500 acres of gardens and woodland weren’t enough, Margam Country Park also features a pop-up cinema this August – showing Grease (28 August), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (29 August) and Bohemian Rhapsody (30 August). The screenings are organised by Adventure Cinema, which runs outdoor events in 70+ venues nationwide: other Wales locations include Powis Castle, Llancaiach Fawr and Caldicot Castle.
Cardiff Castle, Cardiff
With performances by Only Men Aloud, and tributes encompassing everyone from Whitney Houston to ABBA, the Live Under The Stars festival is Cardiff’s hottest ticket this summer (1-9 August). Bring Them Home, a two-night extravaganza, will unite some of Wales’s finest musical voices – including Sophie Evans (Wizard of Oz, Wicked) and Lucie Jones (Les Miserables, Legally Blonde) – for glittering songs and scenes from London’s top musicals (7 & 8 August).
Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Perthshire
This enterprising venue has taken its entire summer programme outdoors, thanks to a new 80-seat amphitheatre, riverside bandstand and ‘Theatre-Ship’ – with views of the River Tummel and Perthshire Highlands. Its schedule is wonderfully eclectic, from The Wind in the Willows (until 12 September) to Jekyll and Hyde (18 August – 8 September), alongside plays and poetry by various Scottish talents. For families, there’s also an enchanting Alice in Wonderland trail through the Explorer’s Garden (until 12 September).
Pollock House, Glasgow
From 16-18 August, this glorious country park will be transformed into an outdoor cinema – showing Dirty Dancing, The Lion King and Jurassic Park. Expect a vibrant festival atmosphere, with street food stalls, fresh popcorn and a licenced bar. Doors open 75 minutes before the film starts, so you’ll have time to enjoy the landscaped gardens and Georgian architecture too.
Photo: Alastair Muir
Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey
While the indoor theatre is closed, the Civic Square at Mossley Mill makes a fine location for comedy, music and dance – with shows throughout this summer. Highlights include a medley of West End favourites (22 August), comedy by Scott Gibson (10 September), and a concert tribute to Eva Cassidy (17 September). From 23-25 September, Calamity Jane will be cracking her whip – though, Covid restrictions permitting, this classic musical may be indoors.
Nightflix Drive-in Cinema & Gin Cinema
If you’re steering clear of mass gatherings this summer, or wary of the UK’s unpredictable weather, Nightflix’s drive-in movie screenings are the ideal compromise: you’ll park up, tune your radio to the soundtrack, and watch the film from the comfort of your own car. Refreshments and toilets are located nearby, and there are five places to choose from: Newark, Milton Keynes, Colchester, East Hampshire and Bordon (various dates until 26 September).
Meanwhile, Nightflix’s outdoor Gin Cinema events feature a fully stocked bar and street food stalls – plus the opportunity to upgrade to ‘VIP’ seating (a bean bag or comfy deck chair). Films include Mamma Mia!, Rocketman and A Star Is Born, with screenings in eight locations: Surrey, Scarborough, Coventry, Bradford on Avon, Clacton, Gosport, Wirral and Woodbridge (various dates until 26 September).
For an outdoor film with added wow factor, Luna Cinema hosts screenings at swanky addresses throughout the UK: including Bath’s Royal Crescent, Chatsworth House, Hampton Court Palace and – new for 2021 – Sandringham and Longleat. There are 50 locations to choose from, all offering click-and-collect refreshments and optional seating upgrades. The films are stellar too, with the eclectic line-up featuring Top Gun, Sister Act, 1917, Mean Girls, Black Panther and many more (until 3 October).
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Photos: Getty Images, unless otherwise stated