REVIEW: The Hobbit, Williamson Park, Lancaster

Gareth Cassidy as Bilbo Baggins and Russell Richardson as Gandalf in The Hobbit. Picture by Darren Andrews.
Gareth Cassidy as Bilbo Baggins and Russell Richardson as Gandalf in The Hobbit. Picture by Darren Andrews.

The Dukes Theatre returned to Lancaster’s Williamson Park this week with a spectacular take on Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

You’d struggle to find a better setting for the world renowned epic fantasy adventure, as each of the five locations chosen for scenes around the park become those I so vividly remember from the book.

Josie Cerise (Gollum) and Gareth Cassidy (Bilbo). Photo by Darren Andrews.

Josie Cerise (Gollum) and Gareth Cassidy (Bilbo). Photo by Darren Andrews.

The performance opens in front of Bilbo Baggins’ home in Bag End, The Shire – a beautifully hand-painted round wooden structure complete with smoking chimney, veranda...and plenty of tea and cake.

The weather in our Shire is fine and warm, and the audience in high spirits as the resplendantly dressed most famous of wizards Gandalf makes his way out of the woods to introduce us to Bilbo, and Bilbo to his future travelling companions the dwarves.

Gareth Cassidy is a natural born hobbit, and the first thing you notice are the feet.

But his homely nature and cushion plumping fetish soon come under pressure as the dwarves arrive to commandeer his living space, and demand his help as “burglar” to take back their gold from the dragon under the mountain.

A scene from The Dukes's Hobbit. Picture by Darren Andrews.

A scene from The Dukes's Hobbit. Picture by Darren Andrews.

Even as the dwarves recount their experience with Smaug as youngsters, and break into ‘that song’, Bilbo remains unconvinced, however the next morning Gandalf’s trick has worked, and he follows them off into the unknown.

And thus begins a fast-paced and action-packed journey through the park and Tolkien’s unrivaled imaginings of Middle Earth, where we meet trolls, goblins, wood elves, kings, and things that go bump in the woods.

There are so many outstanding features to this show - the trolls are disgustingly hilarious, the movements of the goblins are alarming and convincing, and then Josie Cerise arrives as Gollum, giving Andy Serkis a run for his money with her take on the wretched yet endearing character.

Somehow Cassidy gives you the impression of invisibility while remaining in plain sight, and Cerise twists and turns in both movement and voice, playing out the riddle and escape scene brilliantly.

The forest spiders in the original novel are replaced by wood elves, some of them played by The Dukes Young Company, and we meet Beorn the shape changer too in what is a magical and eerie scene.

As twilight falls the lighting comes into its own, but the best lighting is yet to come.

A 20 minute break precludes the scene in front of the Ashton Memorial, a purpose built mountain, where Smaug the dragon resides.

Bones lie on the ground and smoke billows from the entrance as Bilbo fulfils his role as burglar, and Bard the archer, played by Natalie Morrell, as dragonslayer.

The dragon is a brilliant feat of theatre engineering, his movements are fluid and real, and it is a wonderful scene.

Next we are led to The Dell, where the final act takes place.

The walk down takes us through wooded glades, and cleverly lit trees, lanterns line the path, and the characters move around the woods or stand like statues in visible locations.

It’s a breathtaking and exciting experience, and my two children are spellbound.

The final battle scene is epic, fires burn, swords glint, and the huge “stone” dwarf commands centre stage.

Joseph Black, who has already impressed as Bombur the Dwarf and William the Troll, is a wicked and terrifying Great Goblin, “clashing swords” imaginatively with Natalia Campbell, who plays dwarf leader Thorin with great emotion.

The performance ends on a breathtaking high.

Previous park and indeed Dukes homegrown productions have expressed a depth of meaning, often reflective of current affairs.

This was present in The Hobbit - ideas of greed, war, deception and honour - but overall it was a more accessible show, lighthearted, simpler, more child friendly and packed full of imagination.

Written by Kevin Dyer and directed by Joe Sumsion (this duo is fast becoming a story in itself), it breathes easily, and the three hours fly by in a heartbeat.

The Dukes team have excelled themselves with The Hobbit, and we are extremely lucky to have such an incredible and dedicated artistic force who are able to turn a city park into one of the world’s greatest fantasy realms with great imagination.

If you’re a Tolkien fan, you HAVE to see this. If you’re just curious, you HAVE to see this.

The Hobbit runs from Tuesday July 5 to Saturday August 13. Tickets available from www.dukes-lancaster.org, or by calling 01524 598500.