Farewell to a park tradition

Merlin and the Legend of King Arthur - Williamson Park at Lancaster
Merlin and the Legend of King Arthur - Williamson Park at Lancaster
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Merline and the Legend of King Arthur - Williamson Park, Lancaster

Announcing the end of its nationally acclaimed promenade plays was almost certainly not the way The Dukes in Lancaster had planned on celebrating 25 years of staging its pioneering productions in the wonderful Williamson Park.

But swingeing Arts Council England cuts which have left Lancashire very much the poor relation compared to Merseyside, Cumbria and Greater Manchester meaning the end of an era and not just the loss of this moveable feast – next year being consigned to a marquee and a revival of the Pendle Witch play Sabbat – but also the trimming from five to two of its in-house productions.

To be honest the earlier cuts are already showing. At their peak there were two promenade shows each summer boasting large casts, elaborate props, community choirs and a real sense of excitement.

There’s still an element of the latter – especially amongst younger promenaders – and each season sets out to explore new areas of the park. But casts these days peak at eight multi-taskers and anyone who remembers how stunning the lake scene was the first time Camelot came calling (Tales of King Arthur, 1990) will notice what a difference a tighter budget makes.

Nobody said it was going to be easy (just ask Patrick Bridgman billed as playing Merlin and the Green Knight but already replaced due to injury by Kieran Buckeridge as a rather hesitant Merlin and Nick Camm as the fearsome knight) and as ever the entire cast throws itself with some abandon up and down the park’s slopes and dells clearly risking limbs if not actually life.

Award winning Kevin Dyer’s script is certainly accessible – a sort of Camelot-light aimed at the Harry Potter generation and complete with comic relief from Shelley Atkinson’s Barrow Woman and Andrew Ashford’s Billy Poggit (and more serious Gawain). But do we really need a mini stand up comedy routine when there’s already more than enough padding in the plot?

As for the story, it’s an odd fusion of the various Arthurian legends and frequently plays second fiddle to the staging. John Cockerill’s Arthur is a tousle haired youth who quite rightly enrages his feisty and much stronger sister Morgana (Cristina Catalina in what is the play’s most convincing performance) whilst Joanna Croll’s gullible Guinevere and Noel White’s rather wooden Lancelot do actually deserve each other.

Even most of Mark Melville’s usually interesting music veers too often to Monty Python’s Spamalot rather than medievalism.

Still, there’s plenty of walking to be done (director Joe Sumsion’s revenge?) and the interesting scene setting compensates for a lot in this latest look at life in Camelot.