Newest Review: ... to be hurried. * What’s On * The repertoire at the Open Air Theatre tends to follow a set pattern; usually, they have four main produc... more
Well-met by moonlight
Open Air Theatre Regent's Park
Member Name: duncantorr
Open Air Theatre Regent's Park
Date: 05/08/07, updated on 05/08/07 (426 review reads)
Advantages: "It's almost fairy time" - enchanting atmosphere
Disadvantages: "What fools these mortals be" - risk of rain
* Where *
The Open Air Theatre is right in the middle of Regent's Park. It is concealed in a leafy little park within the park, known as Queen Mary's Gardens, a circular area of trees, lawns and flower-beds, fenced off with high wrought iron black-and-gold gates. If you haven't looked out for the discreet signposts, you would be lucky to find the OAT at all, its understated frontage being masked behind bushes as you approach.
Once within, you realise that there is more to it that seemed possible, let alone likely, from outside. A high amphitheatre rises, with thirty tiers of seats around a curvature of about 120º facing an open stage framed by the surrounding trees. Beneath the underside of the amphitheatre are cafés, bars and food counters. Off to one side is a green lawn with tables, used both by café customers and by those who have brought their picnics to the show. In case of bad weather, a few tables nestle under cover to one side. Despite the high concrete superstructure, the sense of being outdoors - almost as if in a clearing in the forest - is irresistible.
* When and with what refreshments *
Knowing the best approach from previous experience, my friends and I turned up at 6.30 p.m. sharp, just as the doors were about to open. Parking after 6.30 is free in Regent's Park - provided a space can be found, not always easy, least of all on a hot evening when many people are out for a walk or a picnic.
Two of us claimed a well-situated table in the picnic area, while the other two joined the queue at the food counter. The food is simple - mainly salads, burgers or bratwurst hotdogs - but of good quality, tasty, and not expensive by the standards of such places. It hardly seemed worth the trouble of preparing a picnic. You can even order your food by phone in advance, so as to avoid queuing. We do, however, tend to bring our own booze; the bars are not truly expensive either, but mark-ups on wine are high everywhere, whilst it is little trouble to pack a few bottles. There is no pressure on customers to buy from the restaurant and bars rather than to bring their own, just one of the customer-friendly aspects of the place that makes it so enjoyable. You are also free to eat and drink at your seats while you watch the play, though you should obviously take care not to disturb those around you.
The play starts at 8.00 p.m., so one has a little over an hour to eat and drink beforehand, not leisurely but not rushed either. There is also a quarter-hour interval, into which one can just about squeeze another drink, or even a pudding if that is how one has structured the meal, although this does need to be hurried.
* What’s On *
The repertoire at the Open Air Theatre tends to follow a set pattern; usually, they have four main productions.
Two are Shakespearean pieces, often comedies. A Midsummer Night's Dream (from which the quotations that preface this opinion are taken) is a mainstay - almost a signature tune, so to speak - not quite every year, but maybe two out of three. The play could have been written with the Open Air Theatre in mind, and it’s on again this year, the other Shakespeare production being Macbeth, an atypical selection. My own view is that the OAT should reduce the frequency of AMSND, and also eschew histories and tragedies, to allow more time for other Shakespearian comedies, especially those suited to the open air, e.g. As You Like It, Much Ado, Love's Labours Lost, etc. But this is a plea rather than a complaint; the OAT tends to do well whatever it does.
Next, there is a vintage musical. This year it is George and Ira Gershwin’s Lady Be Good. Exceptionally, there is an added extra in 2007 in that the OAT is also reprising last year’s hit production of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend. In recent years they have performed such classics as Camelot, High Society, Kiss Me Kate and Oh What a Lovely War (I hope the late Joan Littlewood isn't turning in her grave at the thought of her masterpiece being regarded as a 'classic') - all characteristic choices.
There is a children's play, mostly scheduled for matinées. This year’s selection is Fantastic Mr Fox. Finally, dotted through the schedule like cherries in the icing are one-off comic and musical events, including such people as Jimmy Carr and the Comedy Store Players.
If this is not quite "something for everyone" it is quite a lot for anyone who enjoys intelligent entertainment leavened with frivolity.
* Who *
The production of Lady Be Good I saw last night was characteristically lively and self-confident. It was directed by Ian Talbot, the OAT's Artistic Director. He must have been a busy man this summer, also directing The Boy Friend, with Christopher Luscombe directing AMSND and Edward Kemp Macbeth.
As always, the acting, singing and choreography were polished, and the action never flagged.
Pace and vitality are the hallmark of OAT musicals, and this was well up to standard, although there were no “star” names in the cast. You do sometimes find big names on the bill at the Open Air Theatre, often by invitation for cameo parts (famous comedians as Bottom in AMSND, for example). The brunt of the acting, however, is borne by a company assembled for the season, each actor taking parts in some or all of the repertoire. The actors are practised professionals, but seldom famous.
This doesn't matter. They tend to be good and they tend to be carefully chosen for their suitability to the theatre's style. They handle comedy with verve, and for Lady Be Good, the leading players all have strong singing voices - very necessary in the open air environment with its inevitably poor acoustics.
Over the years, I have seen many excellent, some good and a few maybe-not-so-good productions at the Open Air Theatre. But I can't remember ever having seen an outright dud. It is, alas, Ian Talbot’s last season before retirement after twenty years at the OAT. He will be both much missed and a hard act to follow.
* Since when *
The Open Air Theatre was founded in 1932. The first season consisting of just three performances of Twelfth Night. Since then it has grown and blossomed with the years, and become a unique feature of London's theatrical life. This year is its 75th Anniversary; may it long continue.
I was first taken there more than fifty years ago, and have been going intermittently ever since. In those days the high concrete amphitheatre didn't exist; it was built in 1975. When I first went, a few rows of those slatted green-painted foldaway chairs that one associates with park bandstands were banked up on a gentle grass slope. The stage was a much simpler affair than it is today and, if I remember rightly, not very well lit, whereas today's lighting, both of the stage and of the surrounding area, is outstandingly well-contrived and does much to enhance the natural beauty of the setting. But even in those simpler times, and even though I completely failed to follow the plot of Much Ado on that occasion, the experience was enthralling.
There are two small deteriorations since then to mention too, neither of them the theatre's fault: more light on the horizon to remind you that you are in the middle of a city; and, though there is remarkably little traffic noise, there is the occasional roar of overflying aircraft. Low-flying helicopters are a particularly irritating intrusion.
The Open Air Theatre has many devotees, both among theatre people and among the public at large. For as little as £15 a year you can become a Friend of the Open Air Theatre. This is amazing value for the privileges that go with membership: priority booking and ticket allocation, discounts on certain tickets (including 2-for-1 on previews and second nights), programme discount, food bookable in advance, invitations to backstage tours, open rehearsals and the opportunity to meet the cast at the special Friends' party.
Someone should tell them that they're selling it too cheaply, but it won't be me, not at least until after I've renewed my membership.
* How much *
Ticket prices are also very reasonable by today's standards, in my opinion. For the three main productions they go from £33 all the way down to £10. Often they sell out well in advance, but even if the seats are sold, there are a couple of dozen places sprawled on the grass to the side of the amphitheatre that are sold on the night. Arrive early if you want to queue for these, though; on a warm night they are rapidly snapped up.
There are various discounts available off the top three price brackets: for early booking of all three main shows, for preview performances, for groups of 10 or more, and for families. For the children's productions, all seats are £12, but you can bring this down to £9 by booking early.
The box office number is 08700 601811, online booking at www.openairtheatre.org – if you book online you are presented with a layout of the seating still available so you can select your own seats.
* What else? *
The atmosphere is informal. No one dresses up, or would feel they ought to have done so.
The approach of the staff is light rather than heavy handed, customer-friendly, efficient in what matters. The emphasis is on customer enjoyment. You can hang around the picnic area and enjoy another drink or snack if you don't want to rush away after the show.
Seats in the amphitheatre are basic, but cushioned and reasonably comfortable, provided it doesn't rain. None of them are covered. There is room for wheelchairs, and discounts for the disabled and their helpers. The loos are sufficient for the audience's needs, with little queuing, basic but clean.
Parking in the Park is sometimes tricky but normally possible. The theatre itself is just outside the congestion charge zone, but you will have to be careful to approach it from the north if you want to avoid paying the charge (no worry on Saturday and Sunday).
Alternatively, it's only a short walk from Baker Street and Regent's Park tube stations, or from any of the bus routes that pass Baker Street (13, 18, 27, 30, 74, 82, 113, 139, 189, 274).
* "The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve…" *
….by which time you're normally well away. Just as well, because most of the parking spaces in Regent's Park cease to be available after that hour.
You will, if the weather has held, take away memories of a magical evening.
If not, all bets are off, although the cast will struggle on in all but the heaviest downpours. On the rare occasions when they do cancel, you can exchange your ticket for one for another performance, subject to availability. If in doubt take a small foldaway umbrella of the sort that won't interfere with the view of those behind you. You'll still get wet, but you might nevertheless enjoy the play.
Perhaps the tone of the place - and how well they understand their customers - is best summed up by the closing line of the mailing that accompanies each year’s programme: "I hope to see you on the picnic lawn with a glass of wine in your hand, enjoying the highlight of the summer - a night at the Open Air Theatre." One of the highlights of the summer is exactly what it always has been for me.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK.
Summary: Excellent entertainment in an enchanting setting
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