Melodrome brings free festival feeling to Lancaster Castle

The legacy of a much-loved Morecambe musician lives on as his long held dream takes centre stage at Lancaster Castle this month.

Thursday, 21st July 2016, 9:52 am
Updated Thursday, 21st July 2016, 10:54 am

The Melodrome Stage will become the centrepiece for a two-day festival of music, dance, theatre, food and drink in the castle’s courtyard on July 30 and 31.

The small stage with a big personality has been steadily gaining a reputation across the UK as a unique and eclectic performance space where anything can, and does, happen.

Its founder and creator Chas Ambler, described as a “kind, charming and joyful musician” by friends and colleagues, died in August 2015 after a battle with oesophagal cancer.

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But his vision for a travelling variety theatre and mobile music stage became a reality with the birth of The Melodrome, now a firm fixture and festival favourite at events up and and down the country.

Martin Houghton, AKA Frank Melodrome, describes the movement as “one of Morecambe Bay’s finest Time Travelling Theatre Companies”, and in a typically theatrical fashion, elaborates on how the idea first took hold in Somerset a few years ago.

“The idea was first formed between Chas and a man called Dave Panit, who were old friends from the free festival days,” he said.

“Chas has a lot of connections to Glastonbury Festival – he was at the very first one.

Martin Houghton AKA Frank Melodrome (left)

“It came from the showman’s idea of having a place to rest before going back on the road – the free festival idea of giving music to everyone.

“There was a gig in Bath in 2012, and Chas and Dave (I know!) finished building it later that year.

“They didn’t know what they were going to do with it, and then a guy called Mike Beggs added some ideas.

“Chas’ parents were in the theatre, and his grandad was an impressario, so it was quite natural for him.

“And did you know that in Morecambe there were 30 different theatres before World War Two? It’s as old as the hills.”

Chas wanted to bring The Melodrome back to where he lived in the West End of Morecambe, but logistics had to be considered too.

“It was finding someone with a van big enough to tow it round the country, and someone practical,” Martin said.

“That’s when Mick Fuller and Cath Rowbottom got involved. Mick is extremely practical, and Cath had the right van!”

There are now eight people helping to shape the future movements of the Melodrome – Martin, Mick, Cath, Matt MacDonald, Mandy Blackwell, Lucy Reynolds, Jayney McFaden and Shel Stevenson – and it has now been set up as a Community Interest Company (CIC).

The Melodrome’s little brother, the “Minidrome”, comes into its own between performances.

“The idea of dead space sent Chas into a rage,” Martin remembers, “so the idea of the Minidrome was born out of that.

“When the curtain closes, the show will continue between acts.

“You have to keep things going all the way through.

“It’s a lot of fun for all of us but we want to get it right.

Martin Houghton AKA Frank Melodrome (left)

“Chas led us down this route of trying to explore theatre.

“And as we can see variety theatre has left the big halls and has gone out on the road.

“Things will move and evolve over time, and we’ve got an extremely good group of teenagers on board who are real grafters.”

Committee member Mandy Blackwell, from Lancaster, said: “It’s certainly unique.

“There’s nothing in the world quite like it. It’s exciting and is one of the things that the Lancaster area does very well.

“People should feel proud and fortunate to have something like this locally.”

The Melodrome has been the outdoor stage at Dock of the Bay festival, in Glasson Dock, for four years, and it has appeared at Eden Festival in Scotland, Another Fine Festival in Ulverston, Lancaster Castle and The Vintage Festival in Morecambe, with future appearances at Solfest in Cumbria.

It has already been used for weddings, retirements, and at Chas’ funeral.

The two-day festival at Lancaster Castle is being organised by the Melodrome team.

It will run between noon and 9pm, with music, street theatre, Shakespeare, and performances by The Fabulous Lancashire Revels, Divide and Conker, Atomic Brass, Paddy Garrigan and the Stroller Priests, Wizardmarra, The Beatnik Theatricals and “some reasonably big festival bands”.

There will also be “duelling pianos” all weekend and Lancaster musicians Boogie Bill and Rob B, along with other guests, will be playing all weekend.

The Melodrome Ladies Drinking Circle will be running a cocktail bar, and St John’s Hospice will be holding a vintage stall.

“We hope to keep a good relationship with St John’s. They were amazing with Chas during his final weeks,” Martin said.

A giant conga is being organised to snake between Market Square and Lancaster Castle at the event, and entry fee will be “pay as you feel”.

Martin added: “The future is we’re getting better at what we do, we want to hire the stage out and we want to spread our wings a little bit.

“It’s an exciting time for everyone involved.”

For more information visit The Melodrome Stage on Facebook.