Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre – Previewed

Humour, joy, passion and romance; tonight sees the return of a production with a difference…

Returning for a fourth year, Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre is a combination of spectacle – an intimate 320 seat outdoor auditorium – and theatre of the highest standard (described as “idyllic” by the Guardian), has fast made it a staple of the city’s cultural programme.

We asked Artistic Director Alex Clifton about its popularity, growing reputation and this year’s performances…

This open air event, he says, was conceived in response to the old Chester Gateway theatre having been demolished; it was “born of the hunger and desire of the city for professional theatre to be produced, in the city, [and] as far as possible by the city”.

“A hole had been left in the city’s cultural programming”

Although a hole had been left in the city’s cultural programming and there was a hunger for it to be filled, the proposed Grosvenor Park venture still must have represented a degree of risk, we suggest. “We tried to see whether or not there really was that desire. We did a four week run of two shows in the park and it was a triumph. We had sell out houses and had a fantastic time making the work.”

It’s been a case of onwards and upwards for a company – “around since 2010” – still very much in its infancy. However, when Clifton mentions how “the stars, the environment” add an extra layer of spectacle and occasion to the proceedings, we can’t help but wonder, this being the north west of England, about the wisdom of open air anything – on the day we speak, it’s a deluge outside.

It’s a slightly mean question, of course, but Clifton is philosophical about it. “I guess, like any open air event, you don’t fight the conditions you embrace them; it’s part of the game, the fun.” Enthused, he continues, “It’s elemental theatre: Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed outdoors and it really embraces that… The plays … are improved by confronting the elements. I’m really proud of the theatre and what we’ve achieved.”

While he has every right to be, perhaps some of that pride comes from the fact he also happens to be a native of Chester: “There are nights where I’m sitting down and see my old French teacher – I know them … they’re the same as me, brought up with the same cultural frames of reference – it’s really special for me, the best job I’ve ever had.”

And what of the plays themselves, what can we look forward to between now and August? “This year we’ve now got three productions: Cyrano [de Bergerac], Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” All tried and tested, we note, what about new writing or commissions? Our assumption about the theatre’s reliance on classics to pull in audiences a little premature; Clifton puts us right.

“Our fourth [production] is a young person’s company producing a piece … by a writer from the North West, Olivia Hicks, who won a commission to produce a play. It’s now a 9 week run, with the young company performing later on in the summer.” He continues, “There’s a real commitment within the company for new writing. We’re working with young writers, emerging directors, to produce new work for them.”

“Audiences for the new writing have been as strong as our audience for the Shakespeare”

Does that kind of offer bring different audiences, we wonder. “I’m delighted that one of the things you see when you look back over the last four years is how audiences for the new writing have been as strong as our audience for the Shakespeare … it tells you a lot about the audiences we have… It’s all ages.”

But, he says, they are looking to attract younger audiences if possible. To that end, “this year anyone under the age of 12 gets a free ticket, as long as they’re with an adult. We’re working hard in order to get that audience in.”

Novices to Grosvenor Park, but appetites definitely whetted, we asked Clifton which performance he would recommend if he could only pick one. With little deliberation, he says “Cyrano – something that is told in as contemporary a way as possible. This is a 20th century story using the 17th century as a setting,” he continues.

“It’s a very accessible piece of theatre told in contemporary language, in a very contemporary voice by a writer whose ear for conversation is really vivid… It’s a beautiful story with all that glorious swash and buckle you get from Cyrano. Humour, joy, passion and romance.” 

Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre opens tonight 7:30pm with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and continues until 25th August 2013

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Posted on 05/07/2013 by thedoublenegative