10 of Britain’s best arts festivals for summer 2021

Festivals are back to brighten up our lives, with events from Edinburgh to Brighton lining up live music, art trails, theatre and family fun, alongside virtual shows

Last year was one of cancellations, postponements and digital reinventions, but this summer many arts festivals are hoping to go ahead. Most are planning an adaptable, hybrid format, with socially-distanced live shows alongside online content. Tickets are often sold with Covid-proof guarantees of refund or rollover, but check before you buy.

Brighton festival and fringe

Artwork, part of Brighton’s pier-to-pier  sound installation for Brighton Festival 2021.
Artwork, part of Brighton’s pier-to-pier sound installation Photograph: PR

Interactive art in the Pavilion Gardens, dancing in the streets and a pier-to-pier sound installation will span 14 miles of pebbly beachfront from Brighton to Worthing. Brighton’s month-long live arts festival is followed by its fringe programme. The festival offers distanced lunchtime concerts at Brighton Dome, an otherworldly night-walk around Shoreham port and a lantern-lit trail with choral music and light sculptures through Stanmer woods at dusk. This year’s guest director, the poet Lemn Sissay, has helped schedule nearly 100 shows and installations. One of several world premieres is Tenebrae: Lessons Learnt in Darkness, a moving all-day spectacle inspired by the past year, at Brighton’s reopened Theatre Royal. And there’s a multi-sensory woodland from mid-May in Olafur Eliasson’s immersive The Forked Forest Path under the Fabrica gallery’s Regency church beams, and a fake-news-era War of the Worlds at Worthing theatre.
Festival 1-31 May, brightonfestival.org; fringe 28 May-27 June, brightonfringe.org

Estuary festival, Essex and Kent

Water III, part 1,2 and 3, (Shoeburyness towards The Isle Of Grain), 2015, by Navdav Kander.
Water III, part 1,2 and 3, (Shoeburyness towards The Isle Of Grain), 2015, by Navdav Kander Photograph: Nadav Kander

The landscape around the wide Thames estuary is hosting cultural events in May, June and beyond. An inventive, ecologically aware lineup features murals, audio walks, immersive experiences, a floating sculpture off Southend pier and clocktowers that play threatened birds’ songs. Three wandering players will stop to argue for rebellion in the face of the current climate emergency, channelling the 1381 peasants’ revolt, which began in Essex. There’s open-air art in Chatham and two poets are shaping a collaborative local writing project, describing life by the estuary since March 2020, in The Water Replies. In the autumn, there will be a site-specific performance about rising sea levels in the tidal pool at Shoeburyness.
22 May-13 June, estuaryfestival.com

Coventry: UK City of Culture 2021

Jay1, performing at London’s Electric Ballroom in September 2019; he will perform in his home city in August.
Jay1, performing at London’s Electric Ballroom in September 2019; he will perform in his home city in August. Photograph: Venla Shalin/Redferns

The UK’s latest City of Culture will be blending live and online events and making use of outdoor spaces, such as the newly-regenerated Charterhouse heritage park. The theme of movement reflects Coventry’s car-making heritage and is also, in the political or emotional senses, epitomised by Coventry’s modern cathedral, built next to the ruins of the old war-bombed cathedral. Celebrations will incorporate live music, puppetry, dance, theatre, and a city-wide day of spectacle called Coventry Moves. The city will host the UK Asian film festival and the International Booker prize (virtual) announcement. Terry Hall of the Specials is presenting three days of music in July and Coventry-born rapper Jay1 leads an August festival. In September, the Turner prize show opens at Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery and the third Coventry biennial begins in October.
15 May until May 2022, coventry2021.co.uk

Bath festival and fringe

The Royal Crescent is one of the locations in Bath used to film Bridgerton.
The Royal Crescent is one of the locations in Bath used to film Bridgerton. Photograph: Trevor Smithers/Getty Images

If you were a fan of the Netflix regency raunch-fest Bridgerton, the city’s 73-year-old festival offers walking tours round the grand Georgian locations where much of the filming took place. There are poetry readings in the 18th-century Assembly Rooms, concerts in the abbey and an evening of water-themed a cappella under the floodlit columns and statues of the Roman Baths. This year’s authors include Rachel Clarke with a searing insider account of the Covid-struck NHS, Mel Giedroyc talking about her debut novel, The Best Things, and Richard Osman with The Thursday Murder Club. A music festival-style weekend finale, rescheduled to August, features McFly, Billy Ocean, Fun Lovin’ Criminals and others playing on Bath Rec. Bath’s lively fringe, imaginatively tracing its roots to Roman-era festival sideshows, runs from late May.
Festival 17-24 May, bathfestivals.org.uk; fringe 28 May-13 June, bathfringe.co.uk; finale 7-8 August

Buxton international festival and fringe

Buxton Crescent’s Assembly Rooms, UK.
The ballroom at Buxton Crescent Hotel. Photograph: John Athimaritis

The Peak District spa town has drawn international crowds to the square outside its ornate Edwardian opera house for the last 40 summers. This July, the white-and-gold auditorium will open to audiences for the first time in more than a year to put on a musical and four operas, including Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Buxton’s flower-basketed colonnades and gardens make an idyllic setting for a festival. The chandelier-hung Buxton Crescent Hotel opened late last year, resurrecting a grand Georgian spa; its 18th-century ballroom becomes a new venue for literary events and musical salons. Authors include Cumbrian shepherd James Rebanks and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. A series of festival walks explore the town’s wildlife, architecture or links with Vera Brittain (Testament of Youth memoirist). There’s a fringe, too, featuring music and mocktails in the Serpentine Community Garden or jazz, poetry and art at the Green Man Gallery.
Festival 8-25 July, buxtonfestival.co.uk; fringe 7-25 July, buxtonfringe.org.uk

Edinburgh festival and Edinburgh fringe

Street performer Kilted Colin at the Edinburgh fringe in 2019.
Street performer Kilted Colin at the Edinburgh fringe in 2019. Photograph: Kenny Williamson/Alamy

The Edinburgh fringe sold more than 3 million tickets in 2019, overshadowing the parent event it grew up around. Having retreated online in 2020, this year’s main festival gave the first details of live and streamed performances on 13 April, with a full programme and tickets available from June. New outdoor venues include pavilions among the little lakes and lime avenues of Edinburgh Park and covered concert stages in a university quad. The massive parallel books festival is relocating, for 2021, to Edinburgh College of Art. This August’s fringe will go ahead in some form, but is still deciding how much will be live and how much virtual. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who performed her show Fleabag here in 2013, is the Fringe Society’s first president. She describes the fringe as a place where the relationship between audiences and artists is “feverishly consummated, sometimes with great success, sometimes with awkward fumbles behind an inflatable cow, but always with unbridled passion and creativity.”
Festival 7-29 August, eif.co.uk; fringe 6-30 August, edfringe.com; book festival 14-30 August, edbookfest.co.uk

Greenwich + Docklands international festival

Black Victorians, dance performance by Jeanefer Jean-Charles, which will be part of 2020’s Greenwich + Docklands international festival.
Black Victorians – dance performance by Jeanefer Jean-Charles, which will be part of 2021’s Greenwich + Docklands international festival. Photograph: Marilyn Kingwill

London’s biggest festival of free outdoor performances celebrated its 25th anniversary last year – with socially-distanced shows – and was the first major live arts festivals to go ahead. The festival returns in late summer with a diverse programme of theatre and spectacle. Jeanefer Jean-Charles’s dance piece Black Victorians explores complex black stories from pre-Windrush Britain, while Flemish company de Roovers is staging an immersive production, Blue Remembered Hills, in a secret location. Street art, installations and shows will be uniting Woolwich and North Woolwich communities across the river with the slogan Healing Together.
27 Aug-11 Sept, festival.org

Frome festival, Somerset

Memorial Theatre and war memorial in Christchurch Street, Frome, Somerset.
Memorial theatre and war memorial, Frome. Photograph: Alamy

Quirky cobbled alleyways with streams down the middle, buzzing markets with a carnival atmosphere, indie shops and cafes, four arts venues and a legendary sense of community all mean bohemian Frome is well placed to host a cracking festival. The 2021 festival includes comedy from Reginald D Hunter at the Memorial theatre, music by The Lightning Seeds, and poet John Hegley at the Masonic Hall. Outdoor venues include an amphitheatre with nightly shows, gigs in the courtyard of an old silk mill, and a lakeside glamping site at Marston park. The festival was due to celebrate its 20th birthday in 2020 and marks the anniversary this year with an exhibition of memorabilia at Rook Lane Arts. Several popular annual features are back: garden openings, guided walks, an art trail – and great food. Frome’s bars and bakeries serve everything from watermelon margaritas to melt-in-the-mouth blackcurrant cakes made with local organic jersey cream.
2 -11 July, fromefestival.co.uk

DevaFest, Cheshire

Storyhouse, Chester.
Storyhouse, Chester. Photograph: Andrew Paterson/Alamy

This is a relatively new family-friendly mashup of local food and old school music, parades and performances at Chester Lakes, three miles south of the Roman city (Deva is the Latin name for Chester). Fairground rides and shuttle buses are included in the ticket price. Friday will have a retro vibe with hands-in-the-air dance anthems, Saturday is dress-up Pirate Day and has Sophie Ellis-Bextor performing and Sunday’s finale includes Scouting for Girls. Nearby Chester is billing itself as the ideal open-air city with expanded pedestrian areas and alfresco events. Cultural hub Storyhouse is planning an extended open-air theatre season in Grosvenor park and outdoor cinema with Chester’s gothic cathedral in the background. There’s also the Just So festival for kids in the landscaped Rode Hall estate.
13 - 15 August, devafest.co.uk

The Green Gathering, Monmouthshire

Green Gathering by night
A scene from a previous Green Gathering. Photograph: PR

A ruined neoclassical mansion in gently sloping fields beside the wooded River Wye has been the backdrop for a decade to this eco-campaigning festival. It doesn’t just win sustainability awards, the Green Gathering inspires change and provides spaces for activism, as well as crafts, music and dance. Several bands are rolled over from 2020. There is philosophical folk music, wild harmonies and psychedelic rock in solar-powered marquees with firelit gardens or yoga and herb tea in geodesic lotus domes. And there’s magic, open-mic, dancing, permaculture, and dozens of craft workshops: learn to make rag rugs from rubbish or pendants from stones, shamanic drums or wooden mushrooms. The site is not far from Chepstow, close to the scenic Monmouth bus route, and car-free revellers get a bonus programme. The event is a pioneering off-grid showcase for renewable energy, powered by panels, turbines, pedals and people.
29 July-1 August, greengathering.org.uk

• This article was amended on 15 April. Coventry will host the International Booker announcement not the Booker as originally stated


Phoebe Taplin

The GuardianTramp

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