Theatre review - The Hobbit, Williamson Park, Lancaster

PUBLISHED: 18:37 25 July 2016 | UPDATED: 18:37 25 July 2016

The Hobbit at Williamson Park Photo Darren Andrews

The Hobbit at Williamson Park Photo Darren Andrews

Darren Andrews

The Dukes Theatre stage a special production of the Hobbit in Lancaster’s Williamson Park

Almost 30 years ago a meeting in a Lancaster pub changed the face of theatre in that city and across the country. After a few after-show pints at the Golden Lion on Moor Lane, Jonathan Petherbridge who was then artistic director at the Dukes Theatre, came up with a radical solution to the problem of attracting audiences indoors during the summer: take the theatre outdoors.

Scores of towns and cities now host productions in their parks but the original is still by far the best and this year’s Dukes production in Williamson Park cements that reputation.

The Hobbit proved popular when it was performed here before – the 1994 production is the Dukes’ most successful ever outdoor promenade production – and this hugely entertaining adaptation has been playing to sell-out crowds as well.

It’s not strictly true to the book, but you’d have to be an extremist Tolkein nerd not to appreciate this delightful re-telling which makes full and clever use of the landscape of the park and is laced with customary Dukes humour.

The performances are superb too – Natalia Campbell as the goblin Thorin Oakenshield, Joseph Black in a variety of roles, and Russell Richardson as Gandalf deserve special mention. But the real star of the show is Gareth Cassidy; already a firm favourite with Dukes regulars, with leading roles in previous indoor and outdoor productions including Hansel and Gretel, Peter Pan and Treasure Island.

His performance as the reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins was perfectly pitched – the home-loving Hobbit’s mannerisms, expressions and growing confidence were expertly portrayed and his affection for the role (and Hobbits in general) was obvious.

Among the cast of the Dukes’ early outdoor shows was Andy Serkis who later made his name by playing Gollum in the blockbusting films and there no reason Cassidy could not scale the same heights.

There may well be some younger stars in the making among the members of The Dukes Young Company who performed well as dwarves, wood elves and goblins alongside the cast of seven professional actors.

The action takes place in five locations around the park with the audience trooping from scene to scene in enchanted wonder. The opening scene at Bilbo’s house is the only one with anything approaching a lavish set, but the way the park itself is used to create atmosphere and effect, is magical.

If there was one tiny niggle it was that the dragon Smaug – supposedly a fearsome tyrant – was too cute. His appearance from inside his mountain home (that’s the Williamson Memorial) was greeted with applause and – spoiler alert – his death prompted an audible ‘awww’ from many of the 500-strong audience.

Tolkein famously based Middle Earth on the Ribble Valley area he came to know through visits to his son at Stonyhurst but Kevin Dyer’s wonderful re-working has ensured that audiences this summer will forever associate the Shire with Williamson Park.

• The Hobbit runs until August 13. For more information and to book tickets, call The Dukes Box Office on 01524 598500 or www.dukes-lancaster.org

• This year’s Christmas show at The Dukes is Pinocchio, from November 25 to January 7.

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