An open air summer of theatrical fun

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From Shakespeare to new scripts, Gay Pirrie-Weir takes us through the 15 companies bringing Dorset its summer feast of drama under the stars

Fifteen alfresco theatre companies will be touring our region in the coming months, and their actors as much as their eager audiences will be keeping their fingers tightly crossed that the rain finally stays away and everyone can look forward to balmy evenings in the open air.
It’s a bumper crop for 2024, and as always there’s a selection of plays from Shakespearean favourites to original creations, from comedy to dark mystery, musicals to children’s shows. Venues range from the grounds of stately homes to atmospheric seaside settings.
Audiences are usually asked to bring low-backed chairs, and to arrive in time to set up their picnics and sit back to enjoy the performances. Best position rage is, lamentably, a growing practice, so be sure to put on a smile and remember there are other people wanting to see the stage!
There is also some competition to bring the best picnic – not quite at the Glyndebourne silver candelabra and Krug level, but you might get a few snide giggles at a bag of stuff snatched from the petrol station en route to the venue. What a piece of work is man, as the Prince of Denmark might have said. And you can hear him saying it when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men come to a venue near you. Other Shakespearean plays are prominent, predictably that open air Midsummer Night’s Dream favourite, chosen by Chapterhouse and Troubadour Stageworks. You can also see Dukes Theatre in As You Like It, The Festival Players in The Tempest, Handlebards and Three Inch Fools in A Comedy of Errors and Illyria in Romeo and Juliet.
Editor Laura and I have been discussing how people decide on going to open air plays – is it because you choose your favourite company and go to whatever play they produce, or because you always go to the nearest venue to your home? Do you choose the plays you know and like, or those that you have never seen before? Or do you wait until the last minute to see what the weather forecasters have to say?
This year there are four new companies, and several well established summer tourers. The choice is yours …

Illyria, will be staging The Adventures of Doctor Dolittle at Castle Gardens in Sherborne on 21st June, Maumbury Rings in Dorchester on 9th August and Kingston Lacy near Wimborne on 29th August.

Calf2Cow Theatre touring Sherlock and Watson: A Murder in the Garden comes to Maumbury Rings in Dorchester on 7th June, Winterborne Stickland on 16th June and Arundells in Salisbury Cathedral Close on 27th June.

The multi-production Chapterhouse, touring Beauty and the Beast at Stourhead on 23rd August, Little Women at Stourhead on 30th August and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sherborne School for Girls on 25th August.

Newcomers Dukes Theatre touring As You Like It to Kingston Lacy on 26th June and Kingston Maurward, Dorchester on 23rd August

Long-established Festival Players touring The Tempest, at Shaftesbury Abbey Garden on 22nd June and Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens on 24th June.

The Handlebards, the troupe that travels between venues on bicycles, towing their props behind them, have chosen A Comedy of Errors, and you can see it at the Larmer Tree Gardens on 23rd June, Castle Court School at Corfe Mullen on 25th June and Maumbury Rings in Dorchester on 26th June.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men celebrate their 20th anniversary with a production of Hamlet

Another long-established and always multi-production company, Illyria, will be staging The Adventures of Doctor Dolittle at Castle Gardens in Sherborne on 21st June, Maumbury Rings in Dorchester on 9th August and Kingston Lacy near Wimborne on 29th August. Their second show, Romeo and Juliet, is at Castle Gardens on 4th July (just in time for the election!) and at Corfe Castle on 15th August. The Illyria production of The Gondoliers is at Castle Gardens on 16th July and their final show of the year, The Hound of the Baskervilles, is at Castle Gardens on 6th August and Corfe Castle on 8th August

Newcomers Immersion Theatre have chosen Peter Pan, and you can see it at Athelhampton House on 22nd June or Arundells in Salisbury Cathedral Close on 11th August.

The all-male company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men celebrate their 20th anniversary with a production of Hamlet, coming to the lawns of Rack Close at Salisbury Cathedral on 7th and 8th June, Kingston Lacy on 12th and 25th July, Athelhampton House on 19th July and Breamore House on 24th August.

It’s a welcome return for Cornwall-based Miracle Theatre, who took a break last year and return with an original show, Love Riot, coming to Ibberton on 1st August, and at Kimmeridge Bay the following day. Both these stops are promoted by Artsreach.

New company Plandits Theatre will perform The Secret Garden in the grounds of Athelhampton House on 3rd August.

Quantum Theatre has two shows – Great Expectations coming to the Rifles Museum in Salisbury on 19th and 20th June, and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck at Corfe Castle on 1st August and the Rifles Museum on 30th August.

Miracle Theatre return with an original show, Love Riot, coming to Ibberton on 1st August, and at Kimmeridge Bay the following day

The best named company for an English summer, Rain or Shine, has Oscar Wilde’s enduring comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, coming to the Roman Villa at Rockbourne on 6th June, Bishop Wordsworth School in Salisbury on 28th June, Maumbury Rings in Dorchester on 25th July and Upper Leigh Farm in East Knoyle on 26th July.

My own favourites, The Rude Mechanicals, bring their commedia dell’arte style to an original story, The Dressing Book. See them at Abbotsbury Sub Tropical Gardens on 8th June, Bradford Abbas on 27th June, The White Horse at Stourpaine on 28th June, Tarrant Monkton on 18th July or Child Okeford on 20th July.

The multi-instrumentalist actors of Three Inch Fools will tour The Comedy of Errors, coming to Higher Orchard in Sandford Orcas on 16th August and a new show, The Secret Diary of Henry VIII at Corfe Castle on 22nd August.

The locally based Troubadour Stageworks have chosen A Midsummer Night’s Dream and their tour includes Kingsettle Stud at Cholderton on 29th June and Hatch House near Tisbury on 20th July.

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