Lancaster nostalgia: Dukes theatre celebrates 45 years

The derelict building which became The Dukes in 1971.
The derelict building which became The Dukes in 1971.

One of Lancaster’s iconic theatre’s marks its birthday this week. Louise Bryning looks back at The Dukes over its 45 year reign.

Forty-five years ago this month, the curtain rose on Lancaster’s civic theatre – The Dukes.

Harriet Walter, late to become a Dame, in an early Dukes production.

Harriet Walter, late to become a Dame, in an early Dukes production.

Opened as St Anne’s Church in 1796 it took a year and £180,000 to convert the Georgian building into Lancaster’s latest cultural centre.

The Queen, as Duke of Lancaster, had given her approval for use of the name Duke’s Playhouse, and the official opening was conducted on November 18, 1971, by Lord Eccles, Paymaster General and Minister for the Arts. Rare among theatres to also have a dual purpose as an independent cinema, it was perhaps appropriate that the opening event at The Dukes was the screening of Private Road, which was quite controversial for its time.

But live drama was always going to be at the heart of what is now Lancashire’s only professional building based theatre. More than 300 homegrown productions have been staged there since 1971.

Many of those plays have reflected The Dukes’ Northern roots by telling Lancashire stories such as Buck Ruxton and L’iLe Jimmy Williamson in the early years and recently, Sabbat, Quicksand and The Life and Times of Mitchell & Kenyon.

But the first play to grace The Dukes stage 45 years ago was the classic Moby Dick. It was produced by Century, a mobile theatre company directed by Peter Oyston, The Dukes’ first artistic director.

Lancaster City Council, which had championed the founding of the theatre and has supported it ever since, called upon locals “to show it is not the apathetic, stay-at-home backwater condemned by its critics in the past.”

And to foster more interest in the theatre, The Duke’s Playhouse Club was formed. In 1972, Peter Ustinov became its president and visited that summer.

The acclaimed actor and raconteur is just one in a long list of now famous names who have been associated with The Dukes over the past 45 years.

Among the first to tread The Dukes’ boards was Harriet Walter who became a Dame in 2011 - the first former Dukes actor to achieve this honour. She appeared in 14 productions from 1973-5.

And Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame performed in The Dukes’ version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1980.

Other now familiar names who have appeared in The Dukes’ home produced shows over the years include: Amanda Burton, Miranda Richardson, Alex Kingston, Tamsin Greig and Ashley Jensen.

Famous names continue to be associated with The Dukes. Andy Serkis, who appeared in The Dukes’ very first Williamson Park show and many other inhouse productions during the eighties, became an Honorary Patron this year.

He joins Sarah Lancashire and Christine Mackie who has performed in many Dukes indoor – and outdoor – shows.

Coronation Street regular cast member Cherylee Houston is also a Dukes Honorary Patron acknowledging the important role the theatre has made in her life.

For it was at The Dukes youth theatre where Cherylee was first bitten by the acting bug and years later, thousands of young people continue to 
be inspired by what is now called The Dukes Centre for Creative Learning.

Housed in another former church just up the road from the main theatre, the Centre for Creative Learning provides opportunities not only for young people but also those with learning difficulties, deaf people, older people and others in hard to reach communities.

And it is from this centre that The Dukes’ pioneering scheme for people with dementia – A Life More Ordinary – is being rolled out nationally.

But through the years, The Dukes has become used to breaking new ground. In 1987, it presented its first outdoor promenade production in Williamson Park .

Since then it has become the largest event of its kind in the UK, attracting more than 500,000 people over the years. The 2016 production of The Hobbit recently won a UK Theatre Award and next year’s outdoor season will be The Dukes’ 30th – another cause for celebration.