There are few things I simultaneously look forward to and dread than my annual summer theatre visits to Regent’s Park. I look forward to them because on a lovely night, there’s hardly anywhere better to be; but I dread them, too, because I spend virtually the entire week before every visit anxiously consulting the weather forecasts, to check just what sort of night to expect.
They all give contradictory information. On the BBC website, showers were shown at 7pm for Wednesday evening, with more to follow at 10pm, whereas weather.com showed a dry evening. I hoped that the latter would prove accurate, and it did – for the duration of the play. But driving home, there was lightning in the sky, and I breathed a sigh of relief: it had held off and the only lightning that struck was on stage in Robert Hastie’s electrifying production of Henry V.
Torrential rain then kicked in overnight, with the news reporting that red “immediate action” flood warnings were issued for parts of south-east London and Essex, as parts of the capital were expected to see a month’s rain fall in a matter of hours.
It’s a perennial cry in our household whenever the weather turns nasty – “What a great night to be at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre” – and believe me, I’ve been there when it has. One night, as the performance was halted mid-song of a musical, my companion turned to me and noted: “It’s God crying at the pitch of the leading lady’s voice.”
I’ve also purchased not one, but two, of the warming rugs that the Open Air Theatre thoughtfully sells. Now I always carry the rug and a warm jacket to Regent’s Park, but this week, I actually used neither. You never know.
Sorry to be a weather bore as I talk about this venue, but it’s indivisible from the experience. As is the catering, and here, at least, things are more predictably inviting: while the food offerings at many theatres have significantly improved over the years, Regent’s Park has always got this bit just right. There’s something to suit all budgets, from a barbecue (hamburgers and hot dogs cooked in front of you) to a salad bar, I never leave Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre hungry.
Shows transfer to the West End and New York
Weather and food aside, the real reason you’ve come here is to see a show – and it consistently delivers, particularly on the musicals front. In 2010 and 2011, the theatre took the Olivier award for best musical revival for Hello, Dolly! and Into the Woods respectively. The 2012 show Crazy for You transferred to the West End’s Novello Theatre.
Artistic director Tim Sheader, who directed all of them, subsequently took his production of Into the Woods to New York’s Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, as well. Though I wasn’t a fan of Sheader’s over-conceptualised revival of Ragtime, he did stunning work with Porgy and Bess, and a much more conventional Rachel Kavanaugh-directed production of The Sound of Music hit all the right spots, too. I can’t wait to hear Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar soar over Regent’s Park this July.
But Regent’s Park also has notable success with plays, particularly literary adaptations, with its productions of Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird going on to have a longer touring life after their summer seasons here. To Kill a Mockingbird also returned to the capital at the end of its tour to play at the Barbican Centre. This summer it’ll be reviving its 2013 production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice ahead of a national tour.
Over 140,000 people visit the theatre during the 16-week season, one of the London theatrical summer’s biggest success stories. It is an entirely self-funded charity, and earns 91% of its revenue from ticket sales. Sheader and his joint chief executive William Village have carved out a distinctive place for the theatre in London, and long may it continue.
Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, London NW1 4NU
Box Office 0844 826 4242
Joint chief executives Timothy Sheader (also artistic director), William Village (also executive director)
Commercial director Andy Locke
Head of administration Rachel Quinney
Head of stage Steve Evans
Head of catering Lawrence Keal
Head of lighting Adam Squire
Wardrobe manager Rachel Schofield
Head of visitor services and estates Elinor Williams