One of London's best-loved venues, the Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park, is to have its first big renovation and re-fit since the present auditorium was completed in 1976.

A lottery hand-out of £1.6million is guaranteed provided the theatre can raise another £500,000 before the 2000 season opens next May. Such is the loyalty and affection for 'The Park,' as it is known to aficiandos, that nearly half that amount has already been donated following an appeal by the theatre's patron, Dame Judi Dench.

A fund-raising gala is being considered by the theatre in the new year to make up the shortfall. Since the Park's roll-call of past performers includes actors such as Ralph Fiennes, Jeremy Irons, Natasha Richardson and Martin Clunes, there should be no shortage of celebrities to add a touch of glamour.

The Lottery funding, which was granted two years after the rejection of an earlier request for £3million, is seen as a lifesaver for a company which has operated on shoestring budgets since losing its Arts Council grant eight years ago. The theatre survives on commercial sponsorship, a £9,000 grant from Westminster Council and box office revenue.

Despite the importance of the box office, Ian Talbot, the Park's long-serving director, remains determined to keep ticket prices down. 'I want to make it affordable to all,' he says, 'I feel an enormous responsibility to adults and children who might have their first taste of Shakespeare with us.'

Neither the bad weather nor competition from Shakespeare's Globe on Bankside proved detrimental to the 1999 season, which Talbot dubbed 'our most successful ever.'

The Park's millenium season has yet to be announced, but Talbot admits that it's a safe bet it will include A Midsummer Night's Dream, by far their biggest attraction. 'It's what we're all about - making people feel they are stepping into an enchanted wood.'