IT doesn’t matter whether it’s a concert for dogs, a youth Shakespeare performance or a Beach Boys tribute band – Brighton Open Air Theatre (BOAT) has proved to be a hit with audiences over the past two years.

The eclectic programme of events has obviously struck a chord with Brighton audiences who, it’s fair to say, are game for entertainment and culture in all shapes and sizes. There’s a true community ethos to the venue, not least because of the amount of local theatre groups who stage productions in the amphitheatre – 88 London Road, Brighton Little Theatre and Droll and Folly to name a few.

Its success is all the more satisfying when you consider BOAT’s origin. After popular Brighton playwright Adrian Bunting died from cancer in 2013, aged 47, friends set about realising his long-held dream to create an open-air theatre on the disused bowling green in Dyke Road Park. By registering as a charity, BOAT was able to raise £100,000 through benefit gigs, an art auction and individual donations.

The venue was opened by Bunting’s mother Isobelle in May 2015. It boosted its profile last year by hosting Brighton Festival guest director Laurie Anderson’s infamous Concert for Dogs event, and further so this year by getting Brighton-based comedian Simon Evans on board as a patron. Above everything else, though, manager Anne-Marie Williams believes being under the sky (and sometimes the stars) is the single biggest appeal of BOAT. “Outdoor theatre is a genre in its own right,” she says. “It is less formal than indoor theatre and by its nature more relaxed.

“There is no fourth wall, no special effects – and the performers have to work harder to maintain the audience’s attention beyond the environmental distractions of seagulls circling overhead and the occasional fox invasion.” This year’s BOAT programme has already included some gems, including a Simon Evans stand-up show, a performance of Don Quixote, and Barking! The Comedy Dog Show, the natural sequel to Anderson’s concert last year.

“We are hoping to do at least one event every year that our audiences can bring their dogs to,” says Williams. “It’s so much fun. As BOAT is a charity, Comedy for Dogs was our big fundraiser this year and it brought in very welcome funds that will help to keep us afloat for another year.” As for Evans, Williams praises his “great energy” and willingness to embrace “all our madcap ideas”. She adds: “He was the obvious choice for patron. He has increased our comedy profile by attracting big names like Mark Steel and Zoe Lyons.”

The BOAT amphitheatre is based on a classic Greek stage, with a performance area that juts out into the audience. According to Williams, theatregoers love it when actors walk among them, sit next to them and even, in rowdier shows, “kick their picnics”. On a deeper level, outdoor theatre is effectively as old as civilisation. The oral storytelling tradition stretches back to the beginning of mankind, as Williams is keen to point out.

“Two thousand years ago theatre was an opportunity for the whole population of a town to meet up. It was the popular form of entertainment, the place for hanging out, gossiping, to see and be seen. BOAT is carrying on this tradition by being as accessible as possible. There’s no dress code, people can bring their own picnics, and we open doors an hour before the shows so people can make a real occasion of it.

“We know we are succeeding with this as one of our hardest jobs is getting people to leave at the end of the evening.” The accessibility mentioned by Williams was one of Bunting’s mission statements for the theatre. The playwright had a fairly detailed plan for BOAT in his head before his passing and theatre founders worked passionately to carry out his ambition.

“It was part of Adrian’s vision that we should not make value judgments about the work people want to put on at the venue,” says Williams. “We programme according to availability rather than artistic integrity. So, yes, we have a lot of proposals for Shakespeare shows but we are open for five months, May to September, meaning we have plenty of opportunity to showcase loads of other art forms too.”

Williams adds that it is lucky, to an extent, that BOAT receives no public funding. “It means we don’t need to adhere to a specific funding remit. If you have an idea for a show that would work in the space you are welcome to get in touch.”

Brighton isn’t lacking in dynamic performance groups so there is no shortage of takers keen to act on BOAT’s invitation. On top of the collectives mentioned earlier, there is Brighton Shakespeare Company, Brief Hiatus, Identity Theatre, The Young Actors Group and JW Productions, whose version of The Wind in the Willows starts on Wednesday. Elsewhere, Windmill Young Actors present their plays Bread and Games, and Thirteen tomorrow, while Sisata launch their radical adaptation of Othello on July 12.

“In Brighton we are incredibly lucky to have some amazingly talented local theatre groups and year on year we are being approached by even more as a showcase venue,” says Williams. “This is something we have in our charitable objectives and it’s such a pleasure to see how each group responds to our space as they get used to playing it.”

There is a nice story about Adrian Bunting which involves his first acting role. It was in a church production of Noah’s Ark. Bunting only had line: “It’s a boat!” Much later, he joked that his life had come full circle with the establishment of BOAT. He would surely be immensely gratified to see his dream has not only been realised but is providing theatre lovers with rich entertainment throughout the summer months.

“Audiences love our back story of friendship and dreams come true,” says Williams. “They love seeing people they recognise from the local community and chatting about how great it is that BOAT is here to stay.

Upcoming BOAT shows

Rainy Day Bear’s Adventure
Sunday, 1pm
A play for children about a girl named Milly and the adventures she has with her favourite toy, Rainy Day Bear. They visit the Jelly Bean Jungle, the Sea of the Seven Stripy Saucers and the Curly Coloured Cake Castle. 

The Wind in the Willows
Wednesday to Sunday, 1pm and 6pm
This adaptation captures all the wit and fun of Kenneth Grahame’s novel and promises to bring the delights of the literary classic to the open air.

Carol-Ann Duffy’s Grimm Fairytales
July 10 and 11, 5.30pm
Students from Priory School in Lewes reach in to the darker parts of the imagination with this staging of the Scottish writer’s deliciously dark tales. 

July 12 to 15, 1pm and 6pm
Hove-based Sisata present a radical re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Othello in a bold and bright feast for all of the senses. Set against a backdrop of 80s hip-hop culture, it draws from the life and work of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Lifeboat 2: Sing Out
July 16, 1pm
This event brings together voices from across Brighton in what promises to be a spine-tingling afternoon of soulful celebration.

Blue Remembered Hills
July 19 to 22, 6.30pm
Dennis Potter’s modern classic, Blue Remembered Hills, is set during a seemingly endless summer afternoon in impoverished Forest of Dean during World War Two. Relationships mimicking the adult world highlight the casual cruelty of children and how thoughtless actions can result in tragedy.

Brighton Beach Boys
July 23, 1pm
The Brighton Beach Boys premiere a new show, designed to commemorate the many well-loved artists who passed away in 2016. 
Featuring songs from Leonard Cohen to Leon Russell, George Michael, Prince and many more, this show is a heartfelt musical tribute to the passing of greats.

She Stoops to Conquer
July 27 to 30, 6pm 
Oliver Goldsmith’s play has amused audiences for generations. Well-to-do countryman Mr Hardcastle plans to marry his lovely daughter, Kate, to Marlow, the son of a wealthy Londoner. Marlow, along with his sidekick Hastings, duly makes a visit to view his future bride. On their way, they encounter Hardcastle’s reprobate stepson Tony Lumpkin – and this is where the fun begins.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
August 2 to 6, 6pm
The Brighton Shakespeare Company promise an eccentric take on this classic tale, building on last year’s hit Much Ado About Nothing at BOAT.

For more information and tickets visit