The Globe's Julius Caesar is first show to open new arts venue The Amphitheatre at Berrybank
Carved into farming land overlooking glorious Cotswolds landscape is new arts venue The Amphitheatre at Berrybank. With a great programme and strong links in the community it is a welcome addition to the local arts scene. Gill Sutherland met with the team behind the dream.
Kevin Costner starred in the 1989 film Field of Dreams in which he was urged by a whispering voice in his head to build a baseball pitch on his farm. “Build it and they will come” assured the voice… and indeed the dream field did the trick for Costner.
A similar leap of faith that an audience will turn up is being displayed by the four founders of a new arts venue a few miles south of the Warwickshire border.
A glorious green amphitheatre has grown from the earth in the heart of the Cotswolds. The Amphitheatre at Berrybank Park is set on the ancient wold between Stow, Moreton and Chipping Norton. Sculpted in harmony with the surrounding topography, the beautiful, grassed 500-seat amphitheatre looks as if it has always been part of the landscape.
Situated between Stow-on-the-Wold and Adlestrop - inspiration for Edward Thomas’ famous poem Yes, I remember Adlestrop – the amphitheatre has sweeping views across the beautiful Evenlode valley.
Of course the four are not solely relying on blind luck in making their dream venue a success – they are backed by years of experience in all the right areas.
The amphitheatre was created in memory of Janet Cockell, from Oddington, who died in 2020. Her love of telling stories, the performing arts, and the Cotswolds inspired her family to build a venue to celebrate performance in all its magic, while creating a space for everyone, from internationally renowned performers to local groups and performers.
Janet’s husband, local businessman Keith Cockell, had the vision to create the space, along with co-owner and local farmer, Jono Dudfield, who sculpted the stunning venue and tends to every blade of grass and the newly planted orchard.
Judy Reaves, Janet’s daughter, heads the creative programme, together with her husband, production manager, David Hamblett.
A former West End theatre designer, Judy sparks magic with her visual imagination. She has created designs for the BBC, Edinburgh Festival, Lake District National Park, and Chelsea Flower Show among others, along with the nearby Also Festival.
As the Herald toured the new site, Judy explained how they first came up with the idea of the amphitheatre: “We were up here and Keith said wouldn’t it be lovely to do something in Mum’s memory – so we thought let’s build an amphitheatre.”
The idea is perhaps not as random as that sounds.
Judy explained: “We had actually built a little amphitheatre at Great Alne Retirement Village before the pandemic. We designed that so we knew we could do it and this is even bigger and better.”
David added: “We both have theatre backgrounds so it’s just something we know works as a communal space to be entertained in, so it feels natural.”
It is believed that Berrybank is the only grassed amphitheatre in the area, and while David and Judy say they have visited other outdoor theatres, including the Minack in Cornwall and ones in Brighton and Suffolk – there is no instruction manual on building amphitheatres – besides copying the Ancient Greeks.
Farmer Jono did the hard labour of digging out the amphitheatre – taking 18 months and largely working by himself with the occasional help of his daughter.
The audience is encouraged to sit where they want in the amphitheatre, which sits 500. Cables run under the grass, and there is lighting and sound equipment in place, meaning performers can be seen or heard no matter the time or weather.
It is hoped that weather will never cause a show to be cancelled as there is a covering that can go over the amphitheatre. In addition, just adjacent to the amphitheatre, there is also the rather glorious Pavilion, which doubles up as a rainproof shelter should the weather prove particularly challenging.
The Pavilion is a huge circular marquee that glows in the dusk like a lantern-lit Brighton Pavilion. It provides front of house facilities, including a bar and restaurant celebrating local produce.
“We knew we needed some sort of front-of-house weather protection – so we decided to get a marquee,” explained Judy. “I’d seen these marquees before – and I thought it would be my dream to get one.”
Inside the airy and light Pavilion is a large oak-topped bar selling local spirits and drinks, and heading up the catering is Nigel Keller-Godwin, owner of the Pickled Crab in Warwick and a former head chef at a Michelin-star restaurant.
“There is a robata grill [a large fireplace-like charcoal pit], and we can do street food or something more glamorous when needed,” added Judy. “We wanted to take advantage of the fact that we are outdoors and not compromise. And people can order a picnic too.”
A quick look at this summer’s programme shows the breadth and depth of the ambition for Berrybank.
The season runs from 14th June to 4th September and opens with some world-class Shakespeare from The Globe on Tour and its highly-rated production of Julius Caesar.
There is a raft of visiting performance companies that follow, plus comedy and outdoor cinema screenings, including favourites Moulin Rouge and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
A particular highlight is Stratford’s own Orchestra of the Swan who are weaving locally-born writer Laurie Lee’s much loved writings on Gloucestershire and the Spanish Civil War with music by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Albeniz, De Falla and Turina.
The Elgar is of particular interest to local animals. Judy explained: “The cows in the field next door love Elgar, something in the bass we think – they don’t react the same to pop music.”
Judy and David, who live in Wilmcote, are parents to four children, including actor son Charlie Hamblett (Killing Eve, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Secret Agent) who also features in the programme: he is reprising his role at the Everyman, Cheltenham’s Cider With Rosie, when he takes on the role of the young Laurie Lee for the Orchestra of the Swan’s As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning, which local RSC actor Anton Lesser also narrates.
“Mum loved Laurie Lee and I always thought there is just one thing I want to do outdoors – take extracts from his novels and have music,” said Judy. “That developed and we’ve got the rights from the estate – and the blessing of Lee’s daughter.”
The rich and varied programme also sees the launch of the Cotswold Comedy Festival, featuring Marcus Brigstocke, Arthur Smith, Jo Caulfield, Hal Cruttenden and Shaparak Khorsandi, among other well-known comedians.
“We started programming and it just grew and grew – and I battled so hard to get the Globe - and so the programme has kept developing,” said Judy. “We have also forged a great relationship with Orchestra of the Swan. All the other things slotted into place – there’s a bit for everyone.”
She continued: “I’ve booked a professional programme because I wanted it to be as excellent as it could be – but we’re also about community, that’s a big thing, so hopefully local choirs and drama societies can use the amphitheatre too – that’s the plan going forward.”
And just as in Field of Dreams, Judy is pinching herself for that moment when she can show off the magical venue to an audience.
“We’ve had a massive positive response locally, and we’ve got a great mix of amazing people volunteering to help.
“People that have come here seem to absolutely love it.
“We can’t wait to welcome everyone.”