Laura ReynoldsOutdoor Culture In London: Where To Find Theatre, Films And Live Music Al Fresco This Summer
Doesn't matter if it's a chilly 9°c; if the sun's out, us Londoners are out too — and we'll deal with the resulting pneumonia later. Want to make the most of being outside this summer? Here's our guide to experiencing the city's outdoor culture — think cinema, theatre, live music and art al fresco.
Outdoor cinema in London
Outdoor cinema has been A Thing in London for a few years now. We've watched films in parks, gardens, palaces, swimming pools and on rooftops across the capital, and y'know what — it never gets old (though it does sometimes get cold).
Summer 2023 is looking like a good'un for fans of al fresco films — Rooftop Film Club, Luna Cinema and Adventure Cinema are all popping up in the capital, and there are plenty of free outdoor movie screenings too. Read our guide to outdoor cinemas in London and get booking!
Outdoor theatre in London
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
You could spend many hours wandering Regent's Park, and still never stumble across its Open Air Theatre, hidden within the park's Inner Circle. The auditorium is completely exposed to the elements, with tiered seating for around 1,200 audience members.
There are usually three or four shows on the programme each summer, and at least a couple tend to be family-friendly (Peter Pan has been a favourite in the past). For 2023, we're treated to no fewer than six different productions; Once On This Island, Every Leaf A Hallelulah, Robin Hood The Legend Re-Written, The Tempest (they always slip a Shakespeare work in there somewhere), Le Cage Aux Folles, and Dinosaur World Live. Look out for a smattering of comedians too, including Bridget Christie and Tim Key.
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, 10 May-3 September 2023.
Probably London's most famous theatre, Shakespeare's Globe is another open-air experience, and though it's not the original theatre that existed in Shakespeare's time, it replicates the original playing conditions Shakespeare and his actors would have known. The roof takes a wooden 'O' shape, leaving the audience exposed to the elements, and there's room for up to 700 'groundlings' to stand in the yard (though seating is available too).
A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Comedy Of Errors, Macbeth and As You Like It are on the bill for summer 2023 at Shakespeare's Globe. Top tip: if you're on a budget, hold out for the £5 Rush, which sees a limited number of last-minute £5 groundling tickets made available every Friday at 11am.
The above are the only full season outdoor theatre experiences that we know of, though some venues offer pop-up theatre experiences throughout the summer:
- Chiswick House: Robin Hood is scheduled for 27 May 2023, and Romeo & Juliet is on 5 July 2023.
- The Charterhouse: Shakespeare theatre company The Handlebards perform A Midsummer Night's Dream on 3 June 2023.
- Fulham Palace: The Wizard of Oz is scheduled for 2 July 2023.
- The Greek Theatre Players are performing The Winter's Tale at Walthamstow's secret amphitheatre 26-29 July 2023.
Outdoor live music in London
London's not short of a music festival or two — dozens happen each year, taking over parks and commons for days or weekends of live music across all genres, and we've covered them in our guide to London music festivals 2023. But what about when you're looking for something a little more sophisticated? Read on...
Opera Holland Park
For a couple of months each summer, a temporary canopied auditorium pops up in Holland Park, festooned with all manner of lighting and sound gear. It acts as the base for Opera Holland Park, a performing arts charity which works in schools, care homes and the like throughout the year, but really comes into its own for its summer festival. Both classic and newer shows are performed — the summer 2023 season includes Verdi's Rigoletto, Hansel and Gretel, and La Boheme, as well as Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes and performances by the Royal Ballet School. There are even free lunchtime recitals on selected Fridays.
Technically, it's a covered venue, although the canopy does have open sides, so we're calling it al fresco. There's no dress code, though organisers recommend layers in case it gets chilly.
Opera Holland Park. Summer 2023 season runs 30 May-August.
Kew The Music
With its wide open spaces and lush vegetation, Kew Gardens is the ideal backdrop for a sophisticated summer concert or two. Cue Kew The Music, a series of picnic concerts taking place each July. A stage and large screen is set up at the north end of the gardens, close to the Elizabeth Gate. Bring your own picnic chair or blanket, pack a picnic or buy food and drink on site — and enjoy live music in a relaxed and (hopefully) sunny setting.
2023's line-up includes Bastille, The Vamps and Jools Holland.
Kew The Music, 11-16 July 2023.
Hampton Court Palace Festival
If you thought Kew was an impressive concert venue, what about seeing world-famous musicians performing against the backdrop of Hampton Court Palace? The Hampton Court Palace Festival is a series of outdoor concerts taking place in the Tudor courtyard each summer — all tickets are seated. The East Front Gardens open before the show each night, where concertgoers can enjoy a picnic — or there are King's Dining VIP experiences, giving you access to the State Apartments, where you can dine like royalty.
For 2023, Gladys Knight, Soft Cell, Grace Jones, Kool & The Gang, Kaiser Chiefs, Tom Jones, Björn Again and Rick Astley are on the line up.
Hampton Court Palace Festival, 6-17 June 2023.
- Music on the Lawn at Forty Hall, Enfield (2 July 2023)
- Jazz on the Lawn at Fulham Palace (14 July and 15 July 2023)
Outdoor art in London
London has plenty of permanent outdoor art and sculpture trails — The Line is one such example. But here are a handful that are only around for a limited time:
The Serpentine Pavilion
Every year, a temporary Serpentine Pavilion pops up in Kensington Gardens, close to The Serpentine Gallery. The structure is designed by a different team of architects and artists each time, and open to the public for a couple of months. Most memorable for us was The Mastaba, a floating plastic pyramid on the Serpentine Lake by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
The 2023 Serpentine Pavilion is À table, designed by Lebanese-born, Paris-based architect Lina Ghotmeh, named for the French call to get people to sit down together around a table. We're promised 'notions of memory, space and landscape' in a low, modest and skeletal structure. It'll be in situ June-October 2023.
Morph's Epic Art Adventure in London
Here's one to bookmark if you've got kids. 56 six-foot tall sculptures of Morph (remember him?) popping up at 56 different locations around London. Morph's Epic Art Adventure is a free public art trail by charity Whizz Kidz, taking place 19 June-20 August 2023.
Sculpture in the City
Usually running from summer through to the following spring, Sculpture in the City is a free art trail through the Square Mile. Artworks range from standalone sculptures in squares and public spaces, to smaller works mounted onto the walls of buildings or suspended from ceilings at Leadenhall Market, to video projections, plaques and more. The 11th edition finished in April 2023 — keep an eye on the website for details of the next round.
Frieze Sculpture Park
Every October, as Frieze Art Fair takes over vast swathes of Regent's Park with huge marquees, sculptures also pop up in other parts of the park, for the accompanying Frieze Sculpture Trail. This is a free open-air sculpture exhibition open to everyone. Artists, themes and individual sculptures vary annually. Check website for October 2023 dates.
A couple of things to note:
- Dress appropriately for an outdoor setting — layers are your friend. Even if it's been a scorching hot day in London, things get chilly as soon as the sun sets, and many of the above events go in late into the evening.
- Check venues' booking conditions — most don't offer a refund for iffy weather unless it's bad enough that the performance or screening can't go ahead for safety reasons.