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Why Lancaster is a thriving home for outdoor theatre

A 1994 production of The Hobbit was the most popular show in the theatre’s history and was revived in 2016. Photo: Darren Andrews
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It is 30 years since the Dukes, Lancaster, produced its first annual promenade show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in nearby Williamson Park, with a cast that included a very young Andy Serkis as Lysander.

The idea was dreamt up by the then artistic director of the Dukes, Jonathan Petherbridge, and his administrator John Stalker, over a couple of pints in the Golden Lion, the pub next door to the Dukes.

“Outdoor shows were a rarity in the North West at the time because of the rainfall,” explained Dukes veteran Joe Sumsion, who has directed eight promenade shows over the years. In fact, he cut his theatrical teeth on the second promenade show in 1988, As You Like It, as a 19-year-old assistant stage manager.

“We had live piglets, goats and sheep in the show and one of my jobs was mucking out the makeshift pigsty,” explains Sumsion. “One of the piglets escaped and the stage manager had to give chase across the park. I was quite afraid of them at the time.

Andy Serkis, centre, as Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Dukes first outdoor promenade production in 1987

“My recollection is that we worked out how to do it as we went along. The lighting and sound panels were stationed in a milk float, and the dressing rooms were in Portakabins, his and hers, with the goats and lambs underneath. I remember one actor carrying two lambs across a shallow part of the lake in As You Like It.”

The Dukes’ first outdoor season also marked the reopening of the imposing Ashton Memorial, the focal point of Williamson Park, a huge copper-domed folly, sometimes referred to locally as the Taj Mahal of the North. It dates back to 1909 when industrialist Lord Ashton erected it in memory of his late wife. Its architectural extravagance has often been used as a backdrop to Dukes’ productions, including Beauty and the Beast in 2008.

Merlin and the Legend of King Arthur, 2011. Photo: Ian Tilton

“It was my first show as director,” says Sumsion. “We started off at the memorial, which doubled as the Beast’s palace where he is hosting a party. After he behaves badly to his guests, he runs off into the woods, followed by the audience.”

Sumsion lives five minutes away from Williamson Park, walks his dog there and probably knows its 54 acres as well as anyone.

“If you’re directing the promenade show, it helps to know the layout. The best shows feel as if they’ve grown organically out of the ground, like the bushes and trees. They let the park speak to the art. The less successful productions have been the ones where designers and directors have tried to impose themselves on the park.

“I always tell the actors to engage with what’s happening in that moment, whether it’s a cloudburst, a bat flying across the acting area in front of them, or a duck waddling along nearby. What the actor experiences in that moment, so should their character. It’s the same with the audience – they’ve grown to enjoy all those natural distractions.”

Despite the area’s reputation for inclement weather, surprisingly few performances are cancelled due to rain. Audiences tend to arrive fully equipped with rainwear and umbrellas, and a shower is not considered a good reason to cancel. “We only cancel if it feels dangerous for the actors or the audience,” says Sumsion. “Most of the time it’s possible to carry on after a short, sharp shower.”

Treasure Island in 1991

The most popular promenade show in its 30-year history was The Hobbit in 1994, which attracted 21,474 people over its five-week run and won the UK Theatre award for best show for children and young people when it was revived in 2016.

This year the Dukes is revisiting Treasure Island, directed by Sumsion, which was previously done as a promenade in 1991.

He says: “Ours is a new version by Debbie Oates which begins its journey in the children’s playground where there is half a pirate ship made out of wood. We start off in the present day, then revert back in time to Stevenson’s story, using six different locations in the park.

“The shows start in the light, and ends in the dark, so during the course of the evening the setting gets more and more dramatic. We usually manage to work the lake into the story and lots of lighting is rigged in the trees. In the right circumstances it can feel absolutely magical.”

From the outset, members of the audience have been encouraged to enter into the proceedings in a voluntary capacity, singing or playing instruments, or simply as extras such as representing the Argonauts in Jason and the Argonauts.

“Even if we don’t involve the audience directly, they are still entering into the same physical journey as the actors,” says Sumsion.

The Dukes’ promenade shows have given a leg-up to hundreds of young actors early in their careers. Cherylee Houston and Christine Mackie are now familiar faces from Coronation Street, filmed locally in Trafford, and are now honorary patrons of the Dukes. The writer of Treasure Island, Debbie Oates, also has a Corrie connection, having written more than 170 episodes.

Treasure Island promenade performances in Williamson Park, Lancaster, run from July 4 to August 12. 

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