Blog: Dark clouds and a silver lining for the north-west's outdoor theatre
7th July 2011
Arts cuts spell curtains for the Dukes theatre’s alfresco events in Lancaster, but Chester’s new open-air arena ensures the show goes on, rain or shine blogs Alfred Hickling for The Guardian Theatre blog.
It’s the height of summer, which can only mean two things: 1) it will be raining and 2) thousands of determined, possibly even deluded theatregoers will be huddled under cagoules and blankets on an exposed hilltop in Lancaster. For the last 20 years some 460,000 of the hardiest audiences in the country have made it up the punishing incline of Williamson Park, home of the Dukes theatre’s annual walkabout, which has grown to become the biggest and longest-running promenade theatre event in the country. Once up there, the view across Morecambe Bay is staggering. And they really do seem to have the audience’s best interests in mind: one year I complained about the ferocity of the Williamson Park midges. The year after, they put a cushion and can of insect repellant in the press pack.
So it comes with some surprise, and not a little sadness, to discover that the 25th anniversary show, a new version of Merlin and the Legend of King Arthur, is set to be the last, at least in its current form. It’s cuts that are to blame. The Dukes just about managed to survive a swingeing 50% reduction in funding in 2008. Now a further £79,000 drop in Arts Council funding has made the summer park show impossible to sustain.
“The irony is that, despite this being the longest-established and best-attended promenade show in the country, it still costs us money to put it on,” Dukes director Joe Sumsion explains. Yet it’s the hallmark of the Williamson Park walkabout to be absurdly ambitious: over the last quarter of a century it has consumed more than half a million feet of cable, a hundred generators and four camouflaged milkfloats (a familiar sight, trundling around the park carrying lighting and sound equipment). And they never, ever stop for rain. Last year Peter Pan might more usefully have instructed the Darling children how to swim rather than fly. But one of the most authentic nursery rhyme experiences I can recall was a production of Grimm Tales in a consistent downpour, where Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house glowed so temptingly in the depths of a sodden wood that you would have been quite grateful for the chance to warm up in the witch’s oven.
All is not entirely lost. The Dukes intends to refocus on its policy of producing new work, which has recently delivered impressive new plays from John Moorhouse, Lisa Evans and Zosia Wand. Next summer there will be a new play commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch trials, who were hanged within spitting distance of the Williamson Park gates. But the production will be contained within a temporary, tented auditorium – good news for spectators who prioritise keeping dry over keeping fit; though it will be sad to see the old green milkfloat put out to pasture.
Yet as one chapter of outdoor theatre in the north-west closes, another seems to have opened with the establishment of the new outdoor arena in Chester’s Grosvenor Park. Chester has been without a full-time producing theatre since the closure of the Gateway in 2007; yet last year’s combination of Much Ado About Nothing and a new version of the Hercules legend by Helen Eastman was so successful that the length of this season’s run has been extended by a further two weeks. This year there’s an attractive choice between As You Like It directed by Nikolai Foster and another outing for Merlin (this time in a new version by Glyn Maxwell, who will evidently be using his magical powers to appear in two open-air productions at once). Alex Clifton, artistic director of the Grosvenor Park company, told me that this trial run had exceeded everyone’s expectations. “Fortunately,” he says, “we created a kind of flat-pack Ikea auditorium that we could easily bring back out of storage.”
The handsome, intimate arena is the perfect spot for a picnic. And there is little chance of rain stopping play. “The wet weather policy is to start the performance regardless and keep going until the audience let you know that it’s time to give up,” Clifton says. “Some of the best performances last year were when the Blitz spirit kicked in and everyone was willing the actors to stick it out. But you have to observe the point when people look at each other with rain dripping off the end of their noses, as if to say, ‘You know what – this isn’t fun any more.’”