Lovers in the park

28th June 1996 at 01:00
The press night was a wash-out, the performance cancelled by a downpour just as Hermia and Helena were facing up to each other in a leafy gorge. That's the risk with al fresco theatre in an English summer, as the Duke's Theatre Company in Lancaster has learned over the past 10 years.

Ian Forrest's promenade production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is the eighteenth show the company has staged in Williamson Park since 1986. The phenomenon has grown since that first venture out of doors into one of the most popular exercises in cultural tourism the region has seen. The performances of this and The Three Musketeers, throughout June, July and August, will be seen by more than 34,000 people.

The joy of Williamson Park is that its 38 acres offer a wide variety of locations, all with their own character, in a compact space. This year the lake was out of action - ironically, because of the drought - but fresh spaces were disclosed.

You start from a formal patio area behind the Ashton Memorial - wedding-cake of a folly built by a Victorian philanthropist in memory of his wife, with spectacular views of the sunset over Morecambe bay. The classical formality here is perfectly suited to the opening scenes of the Dream, with Theseus and Hippolyta planning their nuptials and adjudicating the disputed betrothal in the Athenian court. Then the audience picks up its Pacamacs and shooting sticks and follows the company around six performance areas in the plantations, just as the characters in the play flee to the forest, filled with the magical spirits of Oberon and Titania.

Forrest and his designer Liz Ascroft give us Edwardian formal dress for the court scenes and then inhabit the shrubbery with earlier, earthier sprites that twitch and spit behind the foliage. David Annen's Oberon is a kingly figure in fulsome raven feathers, Christine Mackie's Titania slinky and sensual with her changeling, Gary Sefton, as Puck, has a jerky cockerel's stride and a jackal's cackle.

The star-crossed lovers and the rude mechanicals (led by John Flitcroft's braggadoccio Bottom) bring energy to their adventures in the woods before we return to the steps in front of the wedding cake for reconciliation, blessing, wedding and fireworks. With original music from James Mackie and movement directed by Lorelei Lynn, the performances are rumbustious, witty and - given a good evening - totally enchanting. It's ideal for an - adventurous - end-of-term outing. But the weather can never be guaranteed.

robin thornber A Midsummer Night's Dream is in Williamson Park, Lancaster until July 6 followed by Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers, adapted by John Chambers, from July 11 (preview) to August 24. Details: 01524 66645

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