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The Dukes in Lancaster celebrate 30 years of walkabout theatre

PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 July 2017

A scene from The Dukes UK Theatre Awardwinning production of The Hobbit which played to sell out audiences last summer

A scene from The Dukes UK Theatre Awardwinning production of The Hobbit which played to sell out audiences last summer

Joel Fildes

The curtain goes up this month on 30 years of walkabout theatre in Lancaster, writes Louise Bryning

The Dukes 30th anniversary outdoor walkabout theatre production will be Treasure Island in Lancaster's Williamson Park from July 4-August 12The Dukes 30th anniversary outdoor walkabout theatre production will be Treasure Island in Lancaster's Williamson Park from July 4-August 12

Thirty years ago a dramatic idea took root in Lancaster which has grown to become the biggest theatrical event of its kind in the UK. In the summer of 1987 The Dukes first presented walkabout theatre in the city’s Williamson Park.

Among the pioneering cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that year was Andy Serkis who has since found film fame as Gollum in Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and Caesar in Planet of the Apes.

He looks back on his promenade theatre days in Lancaster with fondness. ‘Williamson Park is the most extraordinary wonderland for putting on a piece of theatre,’ Andy said. ‘I learned a lot about acting for film actually in that experience – relating with a real environment rather than being behind a fourth wall on a stage.’

Andy cites then Dukes then artistic director Jonathan Petherbridge for his incredibly inspiring vision dreamed up along with John Stalker, then the theatre’s administrator, over a pint in The Golden Lion, just up the road from the theatre.

Todmorden's Russell Richardson as Gandalf in The Hobbit which won the 2016 UK Theatre Award for Best Show for Children and Young PeopleTodmorden's Russell Richardson as Gandalf in The Hobbit which won the 2016 UK Theatre Award for Best Show for Children and Young People

However, it was while on a recce to Williamson Park for the first time that reality hit. ‘I remember walking the staff around the park explaining the idea and what started as an enthusiastic group, turned into a procession of disillusioned stragglers,’ said Jonathan, now Creative Director at London Bubble.

It might be difficult to imagine but for many years leading up to the mid-1980s Williamson Park was in a sorry state with the iconic Ashton Memorial almost derelict.

However, enough funding was secured by Lancaster City Council to transform it into one of the area’s major visitor attractions and the introduction of promenade theatre to the park also helped to give it a new lease of life.

The Dukes opened their first outdoor season on June 24 – Midsummer Day – and what has become a Lancaster theatrical tradition was born. Photographs from that inaugural show plus behind the scenes images from last year’s production of The Hobbit and pictures of preparations for this summer’s Treasure Island are on show in The Dukes gallery until August 13.

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1987.The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1987.

Among those pictured is another promenading pioneer, Ian Blower who still lives in Lancaster and holds the record for performing in the most walkabout shows since 1987, having also appeared in The Tempest, Wind In The Willows, King Arthur and Robin Hood among others.

But what is his abiding memory of that very first show? ‘The lake in Williamson Park on fire and the fairies walking on the water. I rather suspect health and safety would frown on it now,’ Ian said.

The lake will again be a major focal point for this year’s production of Treasure Island, a story which has its own part to play in the 30-year history of Dukes park shows. A different adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic adventure was presented in 1991 and among the band of pirates then was Morecambe’s Cherylee Houston who now plays Izzy Armstrong in Coronation Street.

‘Being a part of the park shows was amazing,’ said Cherylee. ‘I learned a lot about actors’ discipline, staging and camaraderie which has stood me in good stead for an acting career.

‘Williamson Park is so beautiful and has such amazing locations which provide a brilliant experience for the audience, cast and crew,’ Cherylee said.

And rowing a boat full of pirates, including Cherylee, across the lake that year was then assistant stage manager, Joe Sumsion, who went on to become artistic director at The Dukes from 2007 until earlier this year.

However, Joe is returning to direct this new adaptation of Treasure Island the by Coronation Street scriptwriter, Debbie Oates.

He also has vivid memories of his first foray into The Dukes promenade productions particularly as he missed his graduation ceremony because he was busy digging a hole for a scene during rehearsals.

Joe has since directed more outdoor shows in Williamson Park than any other Dukes artistic director.

‘The park shows have been a big part of my life,’ he said and added that one of his favourites was last year’s version of The Hobbit which won a UK Theatre Award for Best Production for Children and Young People and played to sell-out audiences.

Since 1987, more than 500,000 people have enjoyed what is a rare theatrical experience where the audience move from scene to scene along with the cast.

This year, they will be invited to jump aboard The Hispaniola as it embarks on its journey to Treasure Island from July 4-August 12.

To book tickets for Treasure Island, which is recommended for anyone aged five plus, ring The Dukes Box Office on 01524 598500 or visit www.dukes-lancaster.org

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