The show must go on! Forty years of The Festival Theatre at Hever Castle

This summer The Festival Theatre at Hever Castle celebrates its 40th anniversary. Eileen Leahy discovers what’s on the bill for this year’s summer season, which runs from May 27 to August 30 and includes everything from live Shakespeare to comedy, tribute acts and plenty of children’s entertainment…


Every summer the glorious grounds of Hever Castle are filled with great actors, comedians and musicians courtesy of the stately home’s al fresco theatre, which hosts a seasonal programme of comedy, musicals, children’s drama and specialist talks.

The outdoor theatre is the longest-running venue of its kind in the South East and has previously been dubbed the ‘West End in the Garden of England’ thanks to the many productions, plays, comedy performances and music concerts it puts on from the end of May until the August Bank Holiday weekend.

Founded by Ron Palmer as the Kent Repertory Theatre Company in 1983, this year it celebrates its 40th anniversary and to mark this milestone it will be hosting 40 fantastic events that will aim to entertain all.

Its director since 2018 is Ailsa Molyneux, who is very excited about the forthcoming season and its celebrations.

“We are so proud of The Festival Theatre at Hever Castle. Our stunning venue, staff and performers are a tribute to our breathtaking home. We can’t wait to celebrate being 40 with our audiences. That will be when the real fun begins.”

She goes on to say that this year’s “vibrant and varied” programme includes opera, plays, jazz, music, speakers, comedy, family favourites and the best tribute artists.

“The festival opened with Shakespeare 40 years ago and will do the same this year as we welcome The Three Inch Fools to The Loggia with As You Like It on Saturday May 27.

“As always, events will take place at our picturesque home, the Two Sisters’ Theatre, as well as The Loggia and Anne Boleyn’s Walk. And this year, for one night only, the castle can be your stunning backdrop as you picnic on the main lawn and enjoy Illyria’s production of Pride and Prejudice on Thursday August 3.”

Audiences can also enjoy a mixed variety of other shows and concerts, including ‘Titipu Tea’ in the Guthrie Pavilion where singers from Charles Court Opera will serenade a programme of Gilbert and Sullivan while you enjoy afternoon tea. This takes place on Tuesday July 4 and Tuesday July 18. The Charles Court Opera will then head to the Two Sisters’ Theatre for ‘Come and Sing the Pirates of Penzance’ on Saturday July 22 where the audience is invited to sing the choruses from their seats!

“Several of our most popular companies are choosing to celebrate our 40th with us by bringing their latest shows, including ‘Beyond The Barricade’ on the evening of Friday July 28, New Creations Collective’s new ballet, ‘Nightingale’ on Thursday August 10, and of course ‘The Last Night of the Hever Proms’ on Sunday August 27.”

In addition to this, Ailsa tells us that firm favourites The Ronnie Scott’s All Stars will be appearing on Sunday August 30, with the ever-popular Horrible Histories coming along on August 14 with their show, ‘New Barmy Britain’.

“We are also thrilled to welcome a plethora of world-class companies performing with us for the first time including Wild Arts with their performance of The Elixir of Love on Friday August 11 and Saturday August 12. This is an opera packed with big tunes, romance, and mischievous comedy. The Duke’s Theatre Company perform Twelfth Night on Monday August 28 and there’ll be plenty of opportunity
to dance the night away thanks to The Ultimate ABBA Experience taking place on Saturday July 29.”

Set in the award-winning gardens of Hever Castle, which is the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, history is always at the heart of the festival and this year is no exception.

The Countess of Roden will be giving a talk to launch her new book, ‘The Boleyns in Context’ on Thursday June 1 and her new play ‘The Sphere of Light’ (which is actually set at Hever Castle) will premiere on Friday August 4 and Saturday August 5.

On Wednesday August 2, Dr Owen Emmerson and Kate McCaffrey will present their talk on the current exhibition on at Hever Castle, ‘Catherine and Anne: Queens, Rivals, Mothers’, which will look at the ground-breaking discoveries found within Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours.

Add into this heady mix the comic genius of Alan Ayckbourn, courtesy of his play ‘A Chorus of Disapproval’ on Friday August 18 and Saturday August 19, the award-winning Grinstock Comedy Club with two nights of the country’s leading comedians on Friday June 2 and Wednesday August 23, plus plenty of family entertainment such as the classic tales of Robin Hood (Friday June 2) and David Walliams’ ‘Bad Dad’ on Wednesday August 30, and there’s definitely something to please the cultural palate of your family and friends.

Ailsa adds that this year the team are excited to be taking the festival off-site, thanks to the first-ever event being put on at Hever Castle Golf Club.

“As part of the festival run there will be a Dinner Jazz event with saxophonist Heather Hoyle at the Waterside Restaurant on Saturday June 24.

There is also an opportunity to visit two castles in one day as we bring three family events to The Orangery at Chiddingstone Castle.”

‘The Grimm Sisters’ (Sunday July 30), ‘Peter Pan’ by Slapstick Picnic (Sunday August 13) and ‘The Jungle Book’ (Sunday August 20) will all be presented on stage in this special anniversary year.

“The festival goes from strength to strength despite not receiving any public subsidies or grants, relying entirely on ticket sales to finance each season.

“We couldn’t do this without the fabulous support of Hever Castle, they are exceptional, and, along with the Guthrie family, our greatest supporters,” explains Ailsa. “Our volunteers play a huge role in our success, their dedication guarantees the extraordinary atmosphere which can only be created at the Festival Theatre.”

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