All the stage’s a world

Words by:
Kate Chapman
Featured in:
April 2012

Theatre-goers are in for a treat this summer when the Stamford Shakespeare Company takes to the stage for its thirty-sixth season at Rutland Open Air Theatre with a wonderful new program of events.
The group, which has been based at Tolethorpe Hall since it bought the property in 1977, promises something for everyone with its versions of ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Henry IV, Part I’ and the stage adaptation of ‘The Three Musketeers’.

With its stage set in an enchanting glade, stunning sets, the magic of Tolethorpe begins the moment you take your seat on a warm summer evening. Comfortably seated and protected from the occasional shower beneath a permanent all-weather canopy, it’s the perfect setting to enjoy the works of one of the world’s greatest playwrights. And thanks to the overhead protection no performance is ever cancelled because of wet weather.

The Tolethorpe experience wouldn’t be complete without enjoying a picnic in the beautiful grounds where the gardens have been recreated to an original nineteenth century design or a pre-performance buffet in the charming dining rooms of the historic hall.

Steve Whittaker, the company’s marketing director, said visitors will not be disappointed this summer when the three-month performance season begins in June.

Billed as one of the finest open air theatres in Europe, Tolethorpe was described by the The Stage newspaper as, ‘England’s premier alfresco venue’. The Stamford Shakespeare Company began in the late 1960s with no great ambitions and no business plan, just a wish to perform Shakespeare in the open air for the enjoyment of local audicences. And what began as a modest, amateur theatre has become a regional one with a growing national reputation attracting visitors from all over the country and overseas, many of whom are regular visitors.

“Tolethorpe is unique,” Mr Whittaker said, “and we are really proud of it. Last year we had over 33,000 people come through the gates in a twelve-week season.

“Our auditions for the summer 2012 season were held in September and October and the first readings took place just before Christmas and it’s all going really well.”

I’ve been fortunate enough to see several of the group’s productions in the wonderful open air setting and have never been disappointed. My personal favourite was an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Wind in the Willows’ a couple of years ago, where the attention to detail was second to none, right down to a little stream at the front of the stage where Ratty and Mole rowed their boat.

Mr Whittaker explained that the stage has a sub-stage, which allows the actors to suddenly appear through trapdoors, and a gantry above the centre of the stage, hidden by tree branches enables fairies in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ to fly down from the tree tops, bringing gasps from the audience.
The Amateur Stamford Shakespeare Company was founded in 1968 by RADA graduate Jean Harley, with a performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in the Monastery Garden of Stamford’s historic George Hotel. Three years later the group became independent and was renamed the Stamford Shakespeare Company. It continued open air plays at The George for nine more years until its last performance in 1976, when the hotel was unable to accommodate its performances because of building work. So in August of that year the company had to look for a new performance venue. It was by chance that Tolethorpe Hall came onto the property market in a near derelict state and the company bought it in early 1977, with the help of a generous private loan, which it later repaid. The group’s main interest was a natural amphitheatre situated in the grounds, which it quickly converted into a concrete stepped, raked auditorium covered by a temporary canvas canopy.

The first season opened in May 1977 with performances of ‘Macbeth’ and ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. But after nine years, in 1985, the cost of restoring and maintaining the historic hall and the need for improvements to meet regulations made it necessary for the company to find more income – its only solution was to increase the number of performances and attract bigger audiences.

Publicity was extended into all the surrounding counties and further afield and from this point audiences increased from less than 6,000 in 1985 to 32,000 in 1993 and 34,000 in 1994; Tolethorpe Hall had evolved from a local to a regional and eventually a nationally renowned theatre.
The canvas canopy which protected the 400-seat auditorium from summer showers was put up and taken down each season for sixteen years, until 1993 when it was replaced by a permanent, high tensile fabric canopy, made of a material similar to that later used on the Millennium Dome. Seating at the venue was also increased to 600, helping to boost the income needed to meet the cost of productions, publicity and site improvements.

Two years later the company was awarded a £490,000 National Lottery Grant for improvements including a toilet block, new seating, a new backstage workshop and store, the enlargement of the theatre restaurant and an Orangery extension to be used as a function hall/rehearsal area. The increased accommodation also made it possible for the company to set up the Tolethorpe Youth Drama School for youngsters on Saturday mornings.

Tolethorpe Hall itself boasts an 800-year history, dating back to the eleventh century, when the very first manor house was built on the site by a Norman family – The de Tolethorpes – who came over from France following the 1066 Norman Conquest. The setting of the hall has changed little since then, overlooking attractive parkland with the River Gwash flowing nearby. The manor house was home to two more dynasties of distinguished families following the de Tolethorpes – the Burtons and the Brownes – who both held positions of high office including early MPs and High Sheriffs of Rutland. And in around 1555 the hall was the birthplace of Robert Browne, who went on to become the leading and most active campaigner of the Separatist movement, seeking a separate church from the Church of England at the time of Elizabeth I.

• For more information about Stamford Shakespeare Company, Tolethorpe Hall and performance times and ticket prices for the 2012 season call the box office on 01780 756133 or visit

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