The Dukes’ summer show in Lancaster’s Williamson Park is one of the highlights of my theatrical year. It’s generally extremely good fun, you can take a picnic and, if the weather is as good as this visit, watch the glorious sunset over Morecambe Bay in the interval. The Dukes hasn’t done a summer show for the past two years, so it was a double pleasure to see the company back in harness.
This is very much a family show. Previous shows have had darker moments. I still have nightmares about Polly Lister’s witch from the 2014 Hansel and Gretel. And 2018’s Three Musketeers, directed by Sarah Punshon, who also directs this year, played with gender in a modern way. This year Punshon has chosen a softer approach, but the results are no less entertaining.
The show begins with an absence of actors. They’ve run off to audition for Netflix in Morecambe, a hilarious idea if you’re in the business, if perhaps a bit close to home. But so as not to disappoint the audience, the people who work in the park and a passing bag lady will tell some stories instead. The fact that the boss of the park keepers, Camilla (a severe and pessimistic Helen Longworth), has command of both her separated husband Amp, a resilient Derek Elroy, and her daughter Greta, an utterly charming Alyce Liburd, provides a through line that creates one of the show’s most delightful and unexpected moments. They are assisted by assistant keeper Hans, a thoroughly conceited Lewis Kennedy. The passing bag lady is played by Clare Storey in a style entirely deserving of her name, Sweetie.
I found the opening business setting up the conceit a bit laboured, but once they got into the storytelling it zipped along. The stories they tell are well known, but are inventively told. One of the highlights of 2014 was a feminist frog. This year has a frog too, and he’s an absolute hoot, jumping in at exactly the right moment. There’s a rather good hungry wolf with a penchant for Elvis. And a surprisingly touching romantic reconciliation which is rare in this sort of romp. The cast are uniformly excellent. They act, they sing, they dance, and most importantly they are just lovely.
The choreographer Zak Yates has drawn on some modern influences which the younger members of the audience picked up on. And the script by Andrew Pollard manages to capture everyone from three to 73, which is quite a feat, while the design by Katie Scott and costumes by Katie Duxbury help the actors to secure lots of laughs. Whoever made Rapunzel’s hair didn’t get paid enough.
Williamson Park is only an hour and a bit up the motorway from Manchester and absolutely worth the trip. For a day out there’s a delightful Art Deco hotel in Morecambe with frescoes by Eric Gill, where they do a decent afternoon tea in a gallery overlooking the bay. Best advice: take camping chairs, and if you can’t be bothered to make a picnic there’s a Booth’s supermarket on the southern approach just before the park turning.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
Grimm Tales runs until August 22, 2021. For more information, click here.