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The Reader announces summer season of open-air theatre

Shakespearean favourites and Sherlock Holmes will be featured in a summer season of outdoor theatre performances presented by The Reader charity, situated in Liverpool’s Calderstones Park.

These newly announced performances will bring one of the city’s hidden historic gems back to life. The Art-Deco-style theatre stage, built in 1947 , has hosted everything from performing dogssts to opera and and ventriloqui award ceremonies and is celebrated in a new book and podcast.

The renowned theatre company Illyria will open the summer theatre season on Thursday, July 18, with a moving and poetic production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The production garnered five-star reviews in Canada, was named a Critic’s Choice in Edinburgh, and was nominated for Vancouver’s Best of Fringe.

The HandleBards, a critically acclaimed cycling Shakespearean actors, will present their fast-paced, hilarious new production of The Comedy of Errors on Sunday, August 4. The HandleBards are renowned for touring their sustainable Shakespeare plays throughout the UK while pulling their set, props and costumes on the backs of their bikes.

The UK’s top all-male theatre company, Lord Chamberlain’s Men, will present a new production of Hamlet on Tuesday, August 13, to wrap up the season. With an all-male cast, Elizabethan costumes, music and dance, and a history dating back to William Shakespeare’s original company, the company presents this great play outdoors just as he saw it.

Illyria returns on Thursday 22 August with Sherlock Holmes mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles, based on the book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and adapted by Oliver Gray. This cheeky adaptation promises an evening of mystery, intrigue, and things that go “woof” in the night.

The Garden Theatre stage at the Mansion House in Calderstones Park will host all shows. Audiences will be invited to bring along a deckchair, feast on freshly made pizzas and grazing boxes, and sip drinks from the fully stocked bar under the summer sky.

Calderstones Park’s outdoor theatre began with the Holidays at Home scheme, which brought open-air dance, musical, and comedic performances to the local community during World War II. Because of how well-liked these performances were, Sir Lancelot Keay, the city architect of Liverpool, had an Art Deco-style theatre stage added to the back of the Mansion House in 1947. Before Calderstones closed, it hosted performances by groups including Merseyside Unity Theatre, Liverpool Theatre Players, Liverpool Theatre Guild, and Liverpool Opera Company.

As part of the £5 million, three-year renovation of the Grade II Mansion House, the historic stage underwent a major refurbishment in 2019. The Reader brought the building back to the public’s use with a popular café, bookshop, historical exhibitions and a packed schedule of events aimed at transforming lives through the power of literature.

Jane Davis founder of The Reader said: 

“I remember coming here with half a dozen members of the team and our chair of trustees and walking round the building and the site and just thinking my goodness what would this be like if you brought it to life, what, it’s fantastic, what an amazing asset.”

The Reader’s volunteer team has recently finished an oral history project that allowed them to learn more about the Garden Theatre’s history, thanks to funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The results will be included in a new book with selected poems and literary excerpts, as well as old photos and memories from local residents. At The Reader’s Book Shop, the book will be for sale for a small donation.

Contributor to the oral history project, Mary White said: 

“You could hire a deckchair, which the mums did, though we always just sat on the lawn. I remember being fascinated watching a lady with a performing dog cause I’d never seen anything like it before in my life and it was probably a very simple thing but I remember the dog walking upright on its hind legs and thinking it was amazing.”

A special episode of The Reader podcast is also now available to download and features interviews with contributors to the oral history project audience members who enjoyed shows on this stage, both past and present. The episode is available to download on all popular podcast streaming services and The Reader website here.

Thursday 18 July, 7pm – Illyria presents Romeo & Juliet
Sunday 4 August, 7pm – HandleBards present The Comedy of Errors
Tuesday 13 August, 7pm – The Lord Chamberlain’s Men present Hamlet
Thursday 22 August, 7pm – Illyria present The Hound of the Baskervilles

You can go ahead and book your tickets now here.


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