Saturday, 5 September 2015

Magic in the park: Go to Lancaster’s Walkabout theatre

Sandwiched between the urban sprawl of Greater Manchester and the Lake District, Lancaster tends to get overlooked by southerners. "Never been there," say most. Although one person did say to me (correctly): “Oh, hang on, is it that place you drive past on the M6 with the funny building sticking up on the hill?” 

Yet Lancaster is a city I’d be very happy to live in. It’s small, friendly and relaxed with a creative, free-thinking flavour. It has castle, canal, coast (well, it’s only three miles away) and edges that stop, rather than fizzle out, giving way to instant countryside. 
But when I really fell for it was when I first experienced its annual open-air ‘walkabout’ theatre nine years ago. That summer it was Tom Sawyer. This summer’s production, Oliver Twist, was just as magical.

The setting is gorgeous. It takes place in Williamson Park, with its wooded dells, grassy heights, twisty paths, lake and stunning views over the rooftops to Morecambe Bay and the Lakeland hills. (Yep, you won’t find a theatre with a better backdrop than this!)
It is also home to that ‘funny building’ – a grand-looking folly called The Ashton Memorial.
Each scene of the play is set in a different nook or cranny of the park – and they really know how to use it as their stage! One minute we were sitting on logs in the thick of the woods, in Fagin’s den, watching him cook stew on a real fire, a washing line of silk handkerchiefs strung between the trees. 
The next we were taken to the top of the hill, into the courtyard of the folly, used as Mr. Brownlow’s house, where characters appeared unexpectedly on the balcony.
Even on our way into the park, we spotted a poster pinned to a tree trunk advertising a “Boy for sale”. “That’s cool,” said my nine-year-old daughter. “It’s like as you enter the park, you’re entering Victorian times ... I wonder if the actors will put on Cockney accents." As we waited for the performance to begin, Dodger and his gang ducked and dived around us cheekily, eyeing our pockets, dribbling at our sandwiches, stealing our hats.
The walk, en masse, from scene to scene adds a real sense of fun and excitement. Where were they taking us next? It is done seamlessly, by ushers with smiles and a personal touch. “Best to sit on that side for this scene – you’ll get the last warmth of the sun on your backs,” one told us. And there were sometimes surprises along the way. As we were led into the woods, the gang were lurking in the trees, one sitting on a branch over the path, legs dangling, looking down at us sneerily.

Even the interval was fantastic. We sat at the top of the hill drinking hot chocolate from a flask, watching the sun set over the sea.
The second half began as dusk fell, and was even more enchanting. Lanterns glowed and lights twinkled in the trees, and the audience, picnics now finished, blankets over knees, became a closer-knit huddle, merged in the darkness, absorbed in the story. 
“It’s quite spooky,” said my daughter, gripping my hand as we moved between scenes again, “The way it’s lit up in corners makes you wonder what’s down there … ghosts, monsters, arrghhh!” The final scene, set on the lake, was incredibly atmospheric, and moving. Dodger was to be taken off in a rowing boat to “prison island”. 
Mist rose up from the water as the boat floated slowly into the distance, and there was nothing to hear but the gentle splish-splosh of the oars.

Dodger was undoubtedly the star of the show (and I'm pleased to say escaped to freedom by scrambling up a rope from the boat to the bridge!). Played by a young woman who looked uncanningly like the boy actor in the original film Oliver!, she had an impish face, a devilish glint in her eye and was equally bold and feisty. 
My daughter was excited about her right from the start because the programme said she’d been in CBeebies Grandpa in My Pocket. “I think it’s good she’s a girl because there are too many boys in Oliver Twist!” she said. We both loved Bill Syke’s dog Bulls Eye too, a puppet cleverly made from scrap metal, and ferocious.
Oh, and did the actors put on Cockney accents? Did they heck! They embraced their northern accents and used them with warmth and humour. This was Oliver Twist with a twist, most definitely set in Lancashire, not London. My favourite line of the whole play: “No time for pie? ... But there’s always time for pie.”

Summer 2016’s Walkabout Theatre will be The Hobbit. Visit the website here. 


  1. What a fantastic experience. it must feel like you get wrapped up in the story, sitting in the actual scenery. Sounds amazing.
    Thanks for sharing #LetKidsBeKids

    1. That's a great way to describe it Karen. Yes, you do!

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