5 places to watch outdoor theatre this summer

Missed the thrill of a live performance? These al fresco venues are here to make up for lost time

The dimming of the lights. The hum of excitement as the curtain comes up. The sideways glance at the person two seats down who rustles their sweets too loudly during a crucial scene. It can only be the magic of the theatre — and, finally, it’s back.

But it’s not just bricks and mortar auditoriums that are gingerly opening their doors this summer. Across the UK, more outdoor performance venues than ever are popping up — including brand new stages for brand new shows. The last year might have seen us deprived of live entertainment, but there’s a glut of performances waiting in the wings ready to make up for it now.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true British summer without plenty of Shakespeare in the park and the atmosphere it brings — will it be Midsummer Night’s Dream under real night skies or The Tempest in an unseasonal shower? But the Bard isn’t the only thing on offer. From a fresh take on the legend of King Arthur to an otherworldly comedy about escaping to space, here are five of our favourites.

Showstopper (and more) at Homeground, Manchester

Manchester’s iconic arts centre HOME has just launched Homeground, an outdoor venue designed and built especially for the 2021 summer season. Alongside performances of Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alice in Wonderland, there’ll also be music, cabaret, comedy and spoken word. But for a night to remember, book in for Showstopper, the critically acclaimed improvised musical which will have you laughing, singing and wanting to watch it all over again. It’s only in town for one evening (Thursday 8th July), so be quick. Dates and prices vary; Homeground Manchester, Medlock St, Manchester M15 4AA

Starcrazy at the Minack Theatre, Cornwall

There’s outdoor theatre, and then there’s outdoor theatre at The Minack. Perched atop cliffs on the South-West Cornwall Coast, with a backdrop of spectacular sea views, it’s an incredible venue with a rich history (while you’re there, take a look at the Rowena Cade exhibition, which tells the story of the woman who brought it to life). Many of this summer’s shows have unsurprisingly sold out, but there’s still availability for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, gothic adventure The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and cosmic comedy Starcrazy — about a man who escapes the perils of real life by dreaming of the cosmos. Starcrazy is playing between 4 - 8 July; prices vary; Minack Theatre, Porthcurno, Penzance TR19 6JU

Comedy of Errors at The Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon

It’s a case of something old and something new at the RSC, with The Comedy of Errors — one of Shakespeare’s earliest and silliest plays — being performed in their brand new temporary outdoor venue, the Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre. It’s a classic tale of mistaken identity, with plenty of farce, perfect for a hot summer’s day. And you can truly make a day of it; there’s pre-show dining at the theatre’s Rooftop Restaurant, or takeaway picnic boxes from the Riverside Cafe to tuck into while you watch. 13 July - 26 Sept; Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6BB

Mamma Mia! at Harewood House, Leeds

Stunning architecture, incredible art, and now... ABBA. An historic National Trust estate might be the last place you’d expect to find Mamma Mia!, but for 29 performances only the world’s most upbeat, sunshiney musical is headed to Leeds’ Harewood House. It’s the first time the show, which tells the story of a mother, daughter and three possible fathers through the medium of hit Swedish songs, has ever been performed in an open-air venue. The story is set on a picture-perfect Greek island, so let’s hope these British skies stay blue. 13 - 30 August; prices vary; Harewood House, Leeds LS17 9LG

The Iris Theatre’s Summer Festival, Covent Garden

London’s West End might have been quiet for a little while, but the city’s theatrical heart is about to come alive with the Iris Theatre’s Summer Festival. Held in the gardens of St Paul’s — known affectionately as The Actors’ Church — it’s a celebration of music, magic and performance, with a varied and interesting lineup. But we might be most intrigued by Arthur/Merlin, a brand-new musical reimagining the legend, which closes the festival in August. 21 June - 22 August; prices vary; Iris Theatre, St Paul’s Church, Bedford Street, Covent Garden WC2E 9ED

By Kat Poole