Dukes Theatre to stage outdoor production of Oliver Twist in Williamson Park

PUBLISHED: 10:58 29 June 2015 | UPDATED: 10:58 29 June 2015

Members of The Dukes Young Company will play Fagin's Gang

Members of The Dukes Young Company will play Fagin's Gang

Darren Andrews

This Victorian melodrama is being staged outdoors this summer in a unique northern setting, writes Louise Bryning

Writer Debbie Oates who has adapted Oliver Twist for The DukesWriter Debbie Oates who has adapted Oliver Twist for The Dukes

When Charles Dickens stayed at Lancaster’s Royal King’s Arms even he couldn’t have imagined that one of his stories would be staged outdoors in the city more than a century later.

But that’s just what’s happening this summer when the award-winning Dukes presents Oliver Twist in Williamson Park during the renowned outdoor walkabout theatre season.

And if you think such a glorious park – opened by ‘Lino King’ James Williamson – is worlds away from the tale of an orphan caught up in a life of poverty and crime, think again.

Just a few hundred yards from the park’s landmark, the Ashton Memorial, was the site of Lancaster’s original workhouse. ‘The thought of relocating Dickens’ story to a northern park is intriguing,’ said The Dukes’ artistic director, Joe Sumsion. ‘I can’t wait to see the Artful Dodger, Nancy and Fagin at large in the woods while high above them Oliver and Mr Brownlow look out from the Ashton Memorial over Morecambe Bay.

Hundreds of people every night enjoy The Dukes plays in the parkHundreds of people every night enjoy The Dukes plays in the park

‘I doubt there will ever have been a version of Oliver Twist quite like this one and there’s a palpable air of excitement and anticipation about this show.’

The Dukes’ adaptation of Charles Dickens’ popular story is faithful to its Victorian setting but will have a northern twist thanks to its Lancaster location and its scriptwriter, Debbie Oates, best known as a long-serving member of the Coronation Street writing team. She has also written for the Channel 4 drama series, The Mill, also set in Victorian England.

‘Dickens wrote Oliver Twist as episodes over three years so it was very similar to the way we write soap today when we set off on a story not always knowing where it’s going to go,’ Debbie explained.

The writer, who’s based in Manchester, adapted Treasure Island and A Christmas Carol for the theatre. And just as she turned Jim Hawkins into a girl for Treasure Island, Debbie has made the Artful Dodger female.

Playing this iconic character will be Eccleston’s Josie Cerise who has appeared in the West End and at Sydney Opera House. Her television work includes Grandpa in my Pocket on Cbeebies and the BAFTA nominated Ha Ha Hairies on Cartoonito. Josie stole the show when she appeared at The Dukes as one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella last Christmas.

Playing Fagin will be Rochdale’s Russell Richardson who appeared in Bolton Octagon’s version of Hindle Wakes this spring. Together with their fellow cast members, Josie and Russell will be leading up to 500 people a night on a walk in the park like no other from July 3 to August 15.

The Dukes is one of the very few theatre companies to stage outdoor productions that move from one location to another during the course of the play.

However, such is their success that this unusual event has become the biggest of its kind in the UK and since 1987 has attracted 500,000 people from across the country.

This year’s audiences will see orphan Oliver thrown out of the workhouse and dragged into the park to be sold to the highest bidder. Hidden deep in the woods, they’ll discover Fagin and his gang of tricksters and scoundrels in wait, living a life of adventure.

Fagin’s gang will be a team of teenagers from The Dukes Young Company some of who hope the experience will help them pursue acting careers just as Cherylee Houston did in the early 1990s.

As a member of the youth theatre, she appeared in three Dukes outdoor shows and now plays Izzy Armstrong in Coronation Street. Cherylee is one of the theatre’s Honorary Patrons.

‘The park shows are an amazing piece of theatre and a brilliant experience for the audience, cast and crew,’ she said. ‘I learnt so much about discipline, staging and camaraderie which stood me in good stead for my career. Williamson Park is so beautiful and it’s wonderful to perform in a setting of that size. I would love to do it again one day.’ w

Oliver Twist is recommended for all adventurers aged 5+. For more information and to book, visit www.dukes-lancaster.org or ring The Dukes Box Office on 01524 598500.

Latest from the Lancashire Life