The Minack Open Air Theatre is in one of the most beautiful settings anywhere in the world, perched high on golden cliffs above the turquoise sea
The Minack Open Air Theatre has to be one of Cornwall's most unique and magical places. This Greek-inspired amphitheatre perches in a valley between craggy granite cliffs which rise steeply from the western edge of Porthcurno beach. Rows of stone seats rise up from the little stage with balconies clinging to rocky outcrops.
Blending almost seamlessly into the spectacular scenery that surrounds the theatre, you really don't need to come here for a performance to appreciate what a special place this is. On a clear day the view goes far beyond the turquoise waters of Porthcurno Bay and Pedn Vounder beach, stretching all the way to the Lizard peninsula. If you are really lucky you may even get to see dolphins or basking sharks in the crystal clear waters off the Minack.
It is impossible not to be blown away by this incredible place, even more so when you know that it was the vision and mostly the work of one woman, Rowena Cade.
A history of the Minack theatre
The name Minack is taken from the Cornish word 'meynek' which translates as stony or rocky place. This was the name of the house that the Cade family built on the clifftop for the grand sum of £100. Rowena and her mother had moved to Cornwall after the tragic death of her father in World War I following which they were forced to sell their house in well-to-do Cheltenham.
Whilst the Minack looks like it has been here forever it actually dates back less than a hundred years. A labour of love, Rowena commenced construction in 1929 when she was in her mid-thirties with the help of her ‘quick, strong, courageous and tenacious' gardener, Billy Rawlings They set to work moving granite slabs and clearing the heather and gorse that lined the valley.
The Rowena Cade Exhibition tells the remarkable story of how a girl who had enjoyed a privileged upbringing built this world-famous theatre with her own hands. She worked every winter in all sorts of weather and was still a familiar site with her wheelbarrow until she was well in her eighties. When she died, just before her ninetieth birthday, she left sketches suggesting how the Minack Theatre might be covered on rainy days.
At the beginning, granite was cut by hand and stones were inched into place. The terraces were constructed from earth, stones and pebbles on a slope above a sheer drop into the ocean. The seats were added over subsequent years, and while they look like they are made of stone it is actually a mix of cement and sand from the beach below.
There is however one granite seat in the Minack, and that has been dedicated to gardener and co-builder, Billy Rawlings, who died in 1966.
If you look closer at the seats that rise steeply on the left hand side of theatre you will see they have all been engraved with the names and dates of the performances that took place earlier on in the Minack's lifetime. Much of the theatre is actually decorated with what look like celtic-inspired designs which Rowena etched using a screwdriver on the wet cement.
The first performance (and Minack's raison d'être) held in the theatre was Shakespeare's "The Tempest" in 1932. The stage was lit mainly by batteries and car headlights. As the moon shone across the water below, the Minack Theatre came magically alive for the first time. In 1944 the Minack was chosen as a location in "Love Story", a film starring Stewart Granger and Margaret Lockwood. The film featured "Cornish Rhapsody", which became a popular piano recording.
In 1976, Rowena Cade donated the Minack Theatre to the charitable trust which now administers it. Shortly afterwards, she purchased a bungalow and more land to provide offices and a larger car park.
Now, this theatre that began as a garden venue, has developed into a world-famous venue for good amateur theatrical groups. As players in such groups, many of today's stars have appeared on this open air stage. These include Michael York, Sheridan Morley, John Nettles, Sue Pollard, Will Self, Jack Shepherd and Sarah Brightman, to name just a few.
The Wendy House
Anyone visiting Porthcurno beach who is familiar with the story of the Minack would be right to guess this façade of a tiny house embedded in the cliffside was somehow connected to Rowena Cade. Known as the ‘Wendy House', she had it built in the 1920s as a play house for her nieces and nephews.
The windows have now been bricked up and much of its charm lost but I have seen photos from the 1950s of the house in use, with windows and a door.
A feature of the Minack that is becoming a reason to visit in its own right are the wonderful landscaped gardens which occupy the higher slopes of the theatre site. Commissioned in 1998, the gardens were initially part of the development of the café and visitor centre at the entrance to the Minack. However, the planting was so popular that it has been gradually expanded to cover around 1.5 acres of the steep slopes and rocky outcrops.
The Minack Garden features predominantly sub-tropical planting such as aeoniums, agaves and agapanthus which line the winding paths down to the theatre. It is quite amazing that these plants thrive on what, for much of the year, is a wind-lashed clifftop.
Some plants are available to buy from the gift shop at the entrance to the theatre.
What's on at the Minack Theatre?
The summer season of plays, musicals and operettas runs for seventeen weeks from May to September each summer. The great works of Shakespeare are still performed and accompanied by live music in this beautiful setting. The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan are performed regularly, especially the ever popular "Pirates of Penzance".
Visiting the Minack Theatre
The Minack Theatre and Visitor Centre are situated about half an hour by road from the town of Penzance, just outside Porthcurno.
When is the best time to visit?
There isn't wrong time to visit the theatre, it is a place of ever changing natural beauty whatever the time or weather.
That said, for a performance we would say you can't beat a lovely summer evening, when the moon is shining on the sea and the lights of an occasional fishing vessel can be seen as it makes its way into harbour. No matter whether the play is Shakespeare, Arthurian legend or a musical, there is an undeniable magic here.
Where is the best place to sit?
The seating at the Minack is arranged over around ten terraces which rise steeply up from the stage area. In total there are around 750 seats. On the right hand side of theatre the higher seats are grass covered, which does provide a little more padding than the concrete.
Wherever you sit you probably won't regret bringing a cushion, although you can hire padded backrest cushions on arrival.
Seating is generally allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, so if you have any preferences it is advised to turn up around an hour before the performance. The lower seats are closer to the stage and provide the best views of the action. However, the upper terraces offer the most spectacular views of the theatre and bay beyond.
There is also a balcony close to the stage which is generally reserved for those with limited mobility.
Is the Minack wheelchair friendly?
There is no getting away from the fact that the Minack theatre is literally clinging to a cliff side and the site does include a lot of steep steps. Where possible all stops have been pulled out to make this as accessible for everyone as possible.
The upper levels of the Minack do offer access for wheelchairs and disabled visitors. This includes the café, shop, toilets exhibition and the upper balcony which provides splendid views over the theatre and the bay beyond. Unfortunately disabled access is not possible to the lower levels of the auditorium and stage.
There is a small onsite café at the Minack serving pasties, light takeaway meals and snacks. Set near the entrance, the tables here offer some spectacular views out over the beach and cliffs. The café is not licensed, but it has long been a tradition at the Minack to bring your own bottle to enjoy during a performance.
A souvenir and gift shop is located next to the café from which you can buy any number of Minack-themed mementos - from wooly hats to beautiful photographic prints. A range of cuttings from the Minack's subtropical gardens are also on sale here.
The Visitor Centre is open daily throughout each year but the theatre is closed for viewing during matinee performances.
Winter opening hours
During October the Minack Theatre is open daily from 10am. Last entry at 5pm and the theatre closes at 5.30pm.
From November to February (inclusive) the Minack is open daily from 10am. Last entry at 3.30pm and the theatre closes at 4.30pm. (Café closes at 3.30pm.)
There are no performances during the winter.
Summer opening hours
From March through until the end of September, the Minack Theatre opens daily at 9.30am. Last entry on most days is 5pm with the theatre closing at 5.30pm. However please be aware that the Minack is closed to visiting when a performance is taking place, so check performance times for the day you are visiting in advance.
How much does it cost to visit the Minack Theatre?
We don't have up to date admission prices and these will most likely have increased slightly post-Covid. Also, these are the prices to visit the site, not watch a performance.
Adults pay £4.50 to visit the site and there are concessions for children and OAPs.
Concessions are also available for large groups (10 or more) if you contact the Minack directly.
It is worth noting that the fee to watch performance will cover the entrance for the site if you want to explore the Minack earlier in the day.
Having seen photos of the Minack Theatre you may be forgiven for thinking it is in its own Mediterranean microclimate… it isn't! It is in Cornwall and subject to the same changeable, often windy weather. Therefore we would recommend you bring clothing suitable for all four seasons if you are planning on watching a performance.
Afternoon performances can be surprisingly hot – so bring a hat and sunblock. On the other hand the temperature drops quickly in the evening, even if the day has been warm. You will never regret bringing a blanket, if not just because it gives you an extra layer of padding to sit on.
In the tradition of theatre, refunds are generally only given if the show is cancelled. This will not happen if there is a bit of rain, or even quite a lot! So come prepared, but be aware that umbrellas are not allowed during performances.
Are dogs allowed at the Minack Theatre?
Yes, the Minack is dog friendly and dogs are allowed if kept on a short lead. However, please note dogs (except assistance dogs) are not permitted during performances.
You can access the Minack directly from Porthcurno beach, but be aware that this involves a steep (but safe) climb with a total of 90 steps. The advantage of this route is you can stop as many times as you want to take in the wonderful view across the bay.
By public transport
The Land's End Coaster is an open-top which runs from Penzance to Land's End and stops in Porthcurno. From here it is a ten minute walk to the theatre either along the road, or as mentioned above, via the beach.
Parking at the Minack
If you are visiting the Minack by then you are free to use the on site car park. Car park space is fairly limited with a tarmac area close to the entrance and a larger grass overflow area.
The postcode for satnav is TR19 6JU. Route-wise we would recommend following the A30 and taking the last turning before Land's End. The alternative routes will involve some narrow roads and being stuck in traffic is pretty much guaranteed during the summer months.