Outdoor theatre at the Holburne

Bath’s only purpose-built open-air theatre festival, The Garden Theatre Festival, this year runs from 10–21 July. Emma Clegg speaks to Matt Emeny and discovers that the stage will be full of eccentric sleuths, a quarrelling king and queen in a magical forest, and music, mayhem and madness. Just what outdoor theatre should be all about.

T­he Garden Theatre Festival first made an appearance in 2020 when theatre producer Matt Emeny brought two nights of outdoor theatre to the city, one in the gardens of the Holburne Museum and one at the American Museum & Gardens. He did this by collaborating with Three Inch Fools, an innovative touring theatre company known for their fast-paced and musically driven approach. At this time, scarcely out of lockdown, Matt was determined to find a way of bringing theatre back, and open-air performances felt the best way to stay safe. Each year since, the festival has been scaled up, making its regular home the gardens of the Holburne.

While the outdoor theatre context is no longer essential for mixing in large groups, the playful, upbeat, fun family atmosphere of the festival continues to capture people’s hearts. Matt says, “The festival this year from 10–21 July is about to move into its biggest year yet in terms of infrastructure – we’ve got covered seating, a capacity of 400 including 200 deckchairs, and we have catering on site now. You can even pre-order prosecco!”

Productions this year include Sherlock and Watson: A Murder in the Garden – starring Matt himelf as Sherlock, the production has daily shows from 16-20 July. Produced by Matt’s comedy troupe Calf 2 Cow, this brand-new adaption is an outrageous comedy full of slapstick and multi-roling and is pumped full of live music and rock ’n’ roll. Impromptu Shakespeare launches the festival on 10 July – the format is four actors with a chalkboard, the audience is encouraged to call out what’s they would like to happen, it’s written down and the actors create a brand new Shakespeare play with plenty of audience interaction and lots of laughs.

On 11 and 12 July (with two performances on the 12th) outdoor theatre touring legends the HandleBards (a group who who notably cycle to all their venues) bring A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the outdoor stage. We all know the story: four young lovers find themselves lost in a magical forest, where the Fairy King and Queen are fighting for the possession of a changeling boy… humans and fairies collide, and hilarity ensues.

On 14 July come two productions: Tethered Wits’ The Railway Children (a magical journey filled with fun, music, and a heartwarming narrative), and Jeeves and Wooster in Stiff Upper Lip Jeeves (enter the whimsical world of an affable young gentleman with a penchant for getting himself in outlandish predicaments). Immersion Theatre’s Peter Pan on 20 July (get ready to think happy thoughts and fly high) finishes the official festival, but then comes a pop-up event on 21 August, As You Like It by the Duke’s Theatre Company (think the thrill of music, mayhem and madness). On the challenges of this theatre format, Matt says, “What I love about outdoor theatre is that it’s the very first form of theatre, dating back over 2000 years to the time of amphiteatres. There’s something really special about that sense of gathering outdoors in an arc of seating and witnessing really good storytelling.

“The storytelling has to be really strong because you can’t hide behind props and costumes and sets and lights. When we tour, most shows will be in daylight, so as artists we have to dive into how we can create brilliant storytelling with quite minimal resources. The outdoor sector is tough because it is on such a small scale. We are all doing long tours, you can’t charge a lot of money for tickets, but that makes it accessible theatre, which is what makes it brilliant, because you tour to so many places that don’t normally get theatre. So we’re like a medieval troupe bowling up and unloading and building the stage. The art of it is creating captivating storytelling for two hours that people will sit through in the rain.”

There are other strands to Matt (and his business partner Josh Beaumont’s) theatrical range. They have recently introduced a brand new tribute act to the band Mumford and Sons, which toured for three months. They have just had their first off West End Show, called Why I Stuck a Flower Up my Ass for England – written by a young writer Alex Hill, this launched at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and then transferred to a pub theatre and renowned fringe transfer venue The Old Red Lion in London and then to the Southwark Playhouse. “This show packs a gut punch – it’s an absolutely brilliant comedy. We’re really proud that 54% of our audience for this show so far have never been to the theatre.” There is also a production of Art coming to Theatre Royal Bath – starring Seann Walsh, Chris Harper and Aden Gillett this is a production between Josh Beaumont Productions and Original Theatre, for which Matt is associate producer.

Deckchairs, picnics, prosecco, magic, pandemonium, family fun and laughter, all in the gardens of the Holburne. Make sure you’re there!

The Garden Theatre Festival, in the gardens of The Holburne Museum, 10–21 July.
Tickets £16/£18.