Venue of the Month: Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre

Presenting the Northwest’s answer to the Globe – in Chester

Feature by Alecia Marshall | 07 Jul 2014

July has got to be one of the best months of the year: it signals the end of school, the beginning of summer, and, for the past four years, the opening of Grosvenor Park’s theatre programme. "Grosvenor Park?" we hear you ask. "In Chester? They have a theatre programme?" They have a theatre, actually. An open-air theatre.

Forget Regent’s Park. Forget the Globe. In just four seasons, Grosvenor Park has gained a reputation for excellence, innovation and adventure, presenting a mixed season of Shakespeare and fresh adaptations of classic literature. Mingling the traditional Shakespearean thrust stage with a freshly cut lawn, stripy deckchair and picnic terrace, Grosvenor Park is the dream summer location for the sagacious theatre lover.

Founded in 2010 by Chester Performs (a unique arts organisation that plays an important role in Chester’s cultural landscape, providing an annual programme of site-specific festivals and events), Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre is the only one of its kind outside of London. Past programme highlights include Glyn Maxwell’s much celebrated adaptation of De Rostand’s classic, Cyrano de Bergerac (written especially for Grosvenor Park), and a delightfully interactive performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with a multitude of powder-paint bombs and a set of identical Pucks.

Performed in repertory, featuring some of the country’s greatest actors, directors and designers, this season we are treated to the delicious ‘toil and trouble’ of Macbeth, with an injection of warm-hearted farce from Shakespeare’s earlier The Comedy of Errors – a play often overlooked and yet wildly buoyant and thoroughly entertaining. Completing the theatrical triumvirate is the pleasingly apt Jessica Swale adaptation of The Secret Garden, the mysterious Misselthwaite Manor and overgrown magical garden immediately authenticated by the natural rusticity of the surroundings.

As with any recreational activity worth engaging in, eating and drinking is largely encouraged. The conventional straight-backed chairs of the theatre are rejected by Grosvenor Park in favour of a world of patterned blankets, plump cushions and clinking plates. No matter if the First Merchant emerges from the bushes while you wrangle with a sausage roll atop a Tupperware-strewn blanket, this is a theatrical experience to enjoy – and that is the ultimate success of this venue. Rules are tossed aside in favour of ice buckets and Prosecco, children are free to stretch their restless limbs on the grass and those on the front row find themselves frequently (if inadvertently) part of the action.

Of course, with the pleasures of open-air theatre comes the inevitable pitfall; the unspoken four letter word that so smugly characterises the conventional British landscape. Rain. Nobody wants to hear Macbeth splutter his way through Act V Scene V, upstaged by the well-timed drips sliding down his nose; but then, isn’t that essentially the charm of outdoor theatre? Heatwave or thunderstorm, the show must go on. Recent renovations have ensured most audience seating is well covered, though an emergency weather-proof kit is a sensible idea (umbrellas omitted – they restrict the view of fellow audience members). Then again, who wants to be sensible? 

Grosvenor Park's programme – Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors, and The Secret Garden – runs from 4 Jul-24 Aug. Tickets range from £18.50 to £45