The Dukes opened on November 18, 1971 after a year’s work to convert it from St Anne’s Church into Lancaster’s civic theatre.

The work had cost £108,000 and also included fitting out an independent cinema – unique for a producing theatre –  and public spaces including a café.

The Queen, as Duke of Lancaster, had given her approval for use of the name Duke’s Playhouse, and the official opening was conducted by Lord Eccles, Paymaster General and Minister for the Arts.

The first event at The Dukes was the screening of the film, Private Road, which was quite controversial for its time. Among the audience were the stars including Susan Penhaligon.

Live drama was to be at the heart of the new venue and it would be produced by mobile company Century Theatre who had agreed to become resident at The Dukes Playhouse. The first artistic director was Peter Oyston.

The Dukes first production was Orson Welles’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s  Moby Dick.

Other plays presented during those early seasons included The Dukes first Christmas show – All the World Should be Taxed – Twelfth Night, Waiting for Godot and Arsenic and Old Lace.

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.”

To foster more interest in the theatre, The Duke’s Playhouse Club was formed and 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 40 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. Century Theatre Company continued to perform at The Dukes until 1973 when The Dukes Playhouse Company was formed from some Century members.

Other now familiar names who’ve appeared in The Dukes home produced shows over the years include: Amanda Burton (Silent Witness, Waterloo Road); Ben Cross (Chariots of Fire);  Miranda Richardson (Dance with a Stranger, Blackadder); Alex Kingston (ER, Doctor Who); Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings, Rise of the Planet of the Apes); Coronation street favourites Malcolm Hebden (Norris Cole) and Cherylee Houston (Izzy Armstrong); Paul Bradley (EastEnders, Holby City); Roberta Taylor (EastEnders, The Bill); Tamsin Greig (Green Wing, Black Books); Ashley Jensen (Extras, Ugly Betty) and Zoe Henry (Emmerdale).

The Dukes has always reflected its Northern roots by telling Lancashire stories in plays such as Buck Ruxton and L’iLe Jimmy Williamson and more recently, Sabbat and Quicksand. The only building based producing theatre in Lancashire, The Dukes has staged more than 300 homegrown shows since 1971.

In 1987, The Dukes broke new ground when it presented its first outdoor promenade production in Lancaster’s Williamson Park. This eventually became the largest event of its kind in the UK, celebrating its 25th anniversary in summer 2011.

Right from its start in the early Seventies, The Dukes has aimed to build confidence and an audience among local young people by having its own youth specific space, once known as The Bottleshop, but which is now housed in The Centre for Creative Learning – just further down Moor Lane in another converted church.



Taming of the Shrew




This photograph of St Anne's Church which became The Dukes theatre in 1971 is just one of the nostalgic images on exhibition