There are few things more enjoyable on a sunny summer’s day or warm evening than a spot of the best open air theatre London has to offer. There’s lots about, catering to all tastes. Much of it is even free, so you can spend your money on ice cream instead!
Here’s our pick of the best open air theatre London has for you this summer:
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (Until 23 September)
The Open Air Theatre is surely one of London’s most beautiful venues. Stroll through the picturesque Regent’s Park to find the theatre nestled away, its stage flanked by towering trees. On a warm summer’s evening, as the breeze whispers through the leaves, there are few finer places to watch a show. Once famed for its Shakespearean productions, since Timothy Sheader became Artistic Director in 2007, the theatre has built a reputation for fantastic musical revivals. Its pre-show barbecue also has a mean reputation. This year it stages On The Town, A Tale Of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and Jesus Christ Superstar.
Shakespeare’s Globe (Until 15 October)
An iconic sight on the banks of the Thames, Shakespeare’s Globe is a unique venue. A recreation of the theatre in which Shakespeare’s plays were originally staged, you can pay just £5 to stand as a groundling and see a show. Of course, you can spend a bit more and sit as well. See anything from a Shakespearean production to a brand-new play. Though The Globe had a reputation for “original practices” productions, more recently it has taken chances with new ideas. It always plays with the audience and has fun with its versatile space. This year it’s staging productions of Romeo And Juliet, Twelfth Night, Tristan And Yseult, Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear and Boudica.
Opera Holland Park (1 June to 29 July)
This is another venue in the middle of a gorgeous park, and Holland Park also boasts the atmospheric ruins of Holland House, which was bombed during the Blitz. In the summer a temporary canopy is hoisted to create a venue that seats 1000. Inside, Opera Holland Park, which has its own internationally acclaimed orchestra, stages a host of fantastic musical productions. This year’s summer season includes La Rondine, Don Giovanni, Kàt’a Kabanovà, Zazà, Alice and performances by the Royal Ballet School.
The Scoop (9 August to 3 September)
FREE theatre! The Scoop is tucked away next to City Hall, just a short walk along the Thames from Tower Bridge. Every summer it hosts a season of free theatre, and you don’t even have to book in advance. Just amble along next to the river and see a show. But be careful: since it launched in 2003, The Scoop and its shows have grown in profile and popularity, so you might want to arrive early to make sure you have a seat. This year it’s staging Greek tale The Odyssey. In three parts.
Iris Theatre at St Paul’s Church (21 June to 3 September)
Hidden away in the middle of Covent Garden is a real gem. St Paul’s, also known as The Actors’ Church, is an oasis of calm amid the hustle and bustle of the city. Every summer since 2007 it has given its peaceful garden over to Iris Theatre to present a pair of open air shows. This year, to mark its 10th anniversary, it’s reviving its production of Shakespeare’s thriller of ambition, Macbeth, and staging a new version of children’s classic Hansel & Gretel.
River Stage Festival at National Theatre (28 July to 28 August)
As the sun shines on Southbank during the summer months, the area outside the National Theatre comes alive with performance. And like The Scoop, it is absolutely FREE! For five weekend, a variety of acts take to the exposed stage to give short performances throughout the day. Pop by and you could see anything from circus performers to DJs, dancers to drag acts. This year the weekends are curated by The Glory, HOME Manchester, WOMAD, Rambert Dance and the National Theatre. Find out more about River Stage.
Underbelly Festival at Southbank (Until 30 September)
Okay, so strictly speaking this is not open air theatre. Audiences do enter a temporary building for the performances. However, Underbelly is now so synonymous with the London summer that it would be impossible not to mention it here. And all the bars and food stalls in the Southbank location around the pop-up performance spaces are entirely open to the elements. So have a beer, a Pimm’s or a lemonade in the sunshine, before heading inside to see the best in cabaret, circus and comedy. Then grab another drink in the late-evening sun after the show. Find full festival listings here.
The ultimate in outdoor theatre happens all year round in Covent Garden market, where street performers are a regular sight. Lunchtime and early evening are peak times for performers, though they wow crowds with their stupendous skills throughout the day. Here you can see everything from juggling to acrobatics, magic to music. While stopping to watch is entirely free, if you enjoy yourself it’s customary to give the performer a little something at the end of their show. I mean money, obviously.
Greenwich + Docklands International Festival (23 June to 8 July)
More FREE theatre in this 10-day celebration of drama, dance and street arts. GDIF has brought performance to locations in Greenwich, Docklands and Tower Hamlets since 1996. It prides itself on pushing the boundaries of outdoor performance. In 2016, more than 100,000 people saw over 100 performances at the festival. This year’s event includes French street theatre featuring 3.5-metre-high inflatable horses, a reinvention of Greenwich Fair with 30 performances, and an outdoor version of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge. Find out more in our Festival Focus interview, or get full details here.
West End LIVE (24 to 25 June)
The daddy of free theatre festivals, West End LIVE features the best musicals that London’s Theatreland has to offer performed live in Trafalgar Square. And it’s FREE. There’s much more besides: the world-famous square is lined with stalls and attractions, but the heart of the action is the performances given by the biggest musical theatre stars around. A tip – if you go to West End LIVE, get there early as the queue is usually long. Find out more about West End LIVE.