Britain’s greatest surviving outdoor theatres

The Minack Theatre, perched on the Cornish cliffs at Porthcurno, has been entertaining audiences since the 1930s
The Minack Theatre, perched on the Cornish cliffs at Porthcurno, has been entertaining audiences since the 1930s - Sebastian Wasek / Alamy

There’s an extra thrill to an open-air performance. A sense that theatre should always be this way – intimate and less formal, communal; the audience and performers in it together. And all at the complete mercy of the weather.

Nature plays a prominent role in this industry, and will often dictate programming and whether a show goes on, or not. The National Trust recently shared that they would be pausing productions on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest, after 60 years, due to the impact of the events on the landscape. Positively managing this impact is an ongoing discussion.

Britain has a long history of putting on performances under starlit skies, with the earliest documented during Roman times. Mediaeval mystery plays and the rise of Shakespeare in the Elizabethan era saw more open-air theatres opened and many are still open today where you can enjoy an outdoor performance – primarily over the summer months – surrounded by the beauty of nature. Here are some of the best.

The Roman Theatre of St Albans

Romeo and Juliet at the Roman Theatre of St Albans
Romeo and Juliet at the Roman Theatre of St Albans - Elliott Franks

Built in the year AD 140, as part of the historic Roman city of Verulamium, the Roman Theatre of St Albans was most extensively excavated in the 1930s by a team that included the pioneering archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon. This atmospheric site in the English countryside now hosts a yearly summer festival of theatre and music, seating 300 in its semi-circular auditorium. To accompany a live performance, history enthusiasts can check out the excellent Roman Verulamium Museum.

The Roman Theatre Open Air Festival, run by theatre production company OVO, has performances from May to September, with tickets from £12.50 per person.

Where to stay: Less than a 10-minute drive away is Sopwell House, which has double rooms from £249 per night.

The Minack Theatre, Cornwall

The Minack Theatre in Cornwall certainly has an impressive backdrop
The Minack Theatre in Cornwall certainly has an impressive backdrop - Loop Images

Built into the granite cliffs on the south coast of Cornwall in the 1930s, this 550-seat open-air theatre hosts over 200 live performances a year, a wide variety of plays, musicals, opera and children’s events. The story of Rowena Cade, the woman who built the theatre, much of it with her own two hands, is fascinating, and visitors to the theatre can also access an exhibition detailing her life’s work. The view of Porthcurno Bay from the theatre is spectacular. Porthcurno Beach with its clear waters is often touted as the best beach in Cornwall.

The Minack Theatre (01736 810181; minack.com) has performances from March to October, with tickets from £10 per person.

Where to stay: Chapel House Penzance has double rooms from £150 per night. Popular eatery The Cornish Barn is a two-minute walk away.

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London

With 1,304 seats, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre is one of the largest auditoriums in London
With 1,304 seats, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre is one of the largest auditoriums in London - David Jensen

Also established in the 1930s, in one of London’s landmark parks, this impressive outdoor theatre has a capacity of 1,304. Its summer season is a mix of Shakespearean plays, musicals, contemporary drama and shows for families. Many famous actors have graced the stage including Dame Judi Dench, who is now patron of the theatre.

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (0333 400 3562; openairtheatre.com) has performances from May to September, with tickets from £15 per person.

Where to stay: Dorset Square Hotel in nearby Marylebone has double rooms from £316 per night.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London

The current season at at Shakespeare's Globe includes Much Ado About Nothing
The current season at at Shakespeare's Globe includes Much Ado About Nothing - Marc Brenner

A reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre, built in 1599, the Globe Theatre’s summer programme blends classic productions and contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s work. Get a standing ticket for the yard and you’ll be considered a “groundling” – actors interact with the audience here as they would in Shakespeare’s day, moving through the crowds. Borough Market, Tate Modern and the National Theatre are all nearby.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (020 7401 9919; shakespearesglobe.com) has performances from March to October, and then a Christmas production runs from December to January, with tickets from £5 per person.

Where to stay: The Hoxton, Southwark has rooms from £195 per night.

Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester

The Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre stages classic productions in the round
The Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre stages classic productions in the round - Picasa

Chester was once a Roman fortress, and red sandstone Roman walls still surround its perimeter. The 500-seat open-air theatre in the park is a newer development, established in 2010 and now running a summer programme of classics with a twist and family-friendly shows. Storyhouse, Chester’s excellent cultural centre run by the founders of the theatre, is a 10-minute walk away.

Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre (01244 409113; storyhouse.com) has performances from July to September, with tickets from £22.50 per person.

Where to stay: Centrally located five-star hotel The Chester Grosvenor has double rooms from £162 per night.

Thorington Theatre, Suffolk

The auditorium of Thorington Outdoor Theatre nestles amongst the woodland
The auditorium of Thorington Outdoor Theatre nestles amongst the woodland - NearTheCoast.com / Alamy

This wooden amphitheatre was built in a crater, believed to be the result of bombing during Second World War. Situated on a Suffolk farm that grows organic chestnuts and walnuts, the rural venue hosts an eclectic mix of theatre, music, comedy and children’s entertainment. If you’ve time to explore, the Suffolk Heritage Coast is close by and home to a series of beautiful beaches.

Thorington Theatre (thoringtontheatre.co.uk) has performances from May to August, with tickets from £18 per person. 

Where to stay: Husk, a five-minute drive from the theatre, is a supper club with accommodation (07733 262797; huskthorington.co.uk), with rooms in a converted barn from £260 per night.

John Andrews Theatre, Pwllheli

The John Edwards Theatre offers a varied programme of concerts and theatrical performances
The John Edwards Theatre offers a varied programme of concerts and theatrical performances

This 250-seat, open-air theatre sits in the woodland entrance of Wales’ oldest art gallery, Plas Glyn-y-Weddw. Classic plays, adaptations and concerts are all set to the beautiful backdrop of Cardigan Bay and the mountains of Eryri (Snowdonia). The gallery is well worth a visit, and the popular onsite café is an otherworldly dome-shaped structure created by the sculptor Matt Sanderson. A choice of circular walks can be accessed through the woodland, including part of the Wales Coastal Path.

John Andrews Theatre (01758 740763; oriel.org.uk) has performances from May to August, with tickets from £15 per person.

Where to stay: Portofino-inspired Hotel Portmeirion has rooms from £214 per night.

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Pitlochry Festival Theatre's recent outdoor programme has included the lighthearted Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Lipstick, Ketchup and Blood
Pitlochry Festival Theatre's recent outdoor programme has included the lighthearted Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Lipstick, Ketchup and Blood - Fraser Band

Set within the hills of the Scottish Highlands, this outdoor venue is in the Explorers Gardens at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. The 120-seat compact amphitheatre hosts a mix of opera, musicals and drama, surrounded by views of Ben-Y-Vrackie mountain. Walkers looking to experience more of the landscape can check out Loch Faskally where you can hire canoes and boats to admire the panoramic Highlands views from the water.

Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Amphitheatre (01796 484626; pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com) has performances from July to September, with tickets from £25 per person.

Where to stay: Fonab Castle Hotel has rooms from £238 per night. Try the restaurant at nearby Saorsa 1875, known for its plant-based menu.

Willow Globe, Powys

The climax of a production at the Willow Globe
The climax of a production at the Willow Globe - Full Mongrel

The Willow Globe, or Glôb Byw in Welsh, is a scaled-down version of Shakespeare’s 16th-century Globe, planted entirely from willow. This imaginative and intimate outdoor stage hosts Shakespearean plays and events during the summer season, seating around 100 people. Gilfach Nature Reserve is only a few miles away, and Bradleys in Llandrindod Wells is a great place to stop for tapas.

The Willow Globe (01597 811487; shakespearelink.org.uk) has performances from April to September, with tickets from £12 per person.

Where to stay: Lake Country House Hotel & Spa in Llangammarch has rooms from £211 per night.