Review: The Hobbit

Williamson Park's expansive woodlands are transformed into Middle Earth. Stuart Holmes journeys there

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Williamson Park, Lancaster
7 July

After previous incarnations as Ancient Greece, Neverland and Oz, The Dukes has transformed Williamson Park once more for its annual walkabout theatre production. This year its expansive woodlands become Middle Earth, seeing Bilbo Baggins and friends take the troubled journey “there and back again” in The Hobbit.

The famous story begins at Bag End. Bilbo (Gareth Cassidy) is awoken by Gandalf (Russell Richardson), the master wizard, with the offer of a quest like no other. He awkwardly declines the offer, but his solitude is short lived.

In the opening scene Bilbo’s peace is disturbed and his kitchen upturned by 13 haphazard dwarves, protected with helmets made of sieves and pans and led by Thorin Oakenshield (Natalia Campbell). They leave the Hobbit with no food in his cupboards and no choice but to join them on their quest. From here, they travel to Smaug the dragon’s lair to regain the Arkenstone – the precious heirloom stolen from the Oakenshield family. The ensemble performance is an enjoyable introduction to Bilbo and the dwarves and is well directed by Joe Sumsion, maintaining focus on its key characters amid a flurry of activity.

Cassidy’s portrayal of the protagonist strikes the ideal balance of playfulness and cynicism. His expressions are lovably gormless in the show’s lighter moments and tentatively defiant when his heroism is required. Both Richardson and Campbell also offer solid performances as characters with unfortunately restrictive personas.

The action moves into the woods where Bilbo, the reluctant hero, meets a trio of villains. The drunken ramblings of William the Troll (Joseph Black) and friends can’t help but raise a smile and pose only a minor threat. Once dealt with, the genuinely terrifying goblins follow, with their armoured outfits and face masks striking testament to the costume design throughout the show. Finally, Bilbo meets the infamous Gollum (Josie Cerise), who is covered in mossy camouflage and reluctant to let him pass. Cerise’s performance honours that of former Dukes actor Andy Serkis, but is thankfully not mimicked. The frustration she portrays while exchanging riddles with Bilbo borders on being possessed, with Hannibal Lecter-like teeth chattering adding a sinister edge, without overstepping the mark in front of a family audience.

The mid-section of the show takes place in a visually impressive enchanted forest on the path to Mirkwood. Acrobatic wood elves hang from the trees, playing unkind games with the hungry adventurers – a three-course meal of temptation, trickery and torment. Although the scene provides a necessary build-up to the action to follow, the pace sadly feels fragmented in comparison to the excellent set pieces preceding it. This is arguably the result of practical restrictions within the circular stage, but nevertheless ends the first half of the performance in underwhelming fashion.

Thankfully, events regain momentum after the interval. After seeking refuge from the wood elves with the King of Lake Town (Liam Tobin) and Bard (Natalie Morrell), the stunning Ashton Memorial is transformed into Smaug’s lair, lit up internally with red lights, littered with bones and breathing smoke from the entrance. The Chinese dragon interpretation of Bilbo’s main nemesis is eye-catching without being frightening to those spectators the size of a Hobbit themselves.

The cavernous amphitheatre location of the performance’s final scene, which acts the lair, casts the shadows of Bilbo and the dwarves as those of giants – an appropriate metaphor for their final battle against the goblins.

The Hobbit showcases regular performers and new faces alike. Black, Tobin and Morrell seamlessly transform from one secondary character to the next throughout the evening, reinforcement rather than mere support.

This year’s outdoor theatre by The Dukes is an ambitious plan from an experienced team and largely succeeds. To present such an epic adventure in this fashion was a tall order, but it fortunately only falls narrowly short of expectations.

The Hobbit runs until 13 August and is suitable for all ages 5+

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