Jack and the Beanstalk at Norwich Theatre Royal 2016: Setting the scene for this year’s local panto
- Credit: Nick Butcher
Gallons of paint and glue, copious swathes of canvas and lengths of wood, and thousands upon thousands of staples – that's what it takes to conjure up the magical land inhabited by the pantomime characters in Norwich Theatre Royal's Jack and The Beanstalk, which opens on December 13.
The world inhabited by the Jack and the Beanstalk cast of characters has been put together by the talented designers and scenery artists at Lowestoft-based Scenic Projects, who have been building the panto sets for the theatre for the past eight years.
The business was set up in 1996 by Nick Garrod and Martin Wilson and is very much a family affair with Martin's brothers, Stephen, Gerald and Peter, all playing key roles in the business.
It grew initially from a love of performing in amateur theatre, and has built into one of the UK's leading suppliers of stage scenery, both for pantos and amateur musicals.
This year, its 20th anniversary in the business, Scenic Projects has embarked on the process of moving its offices and workshops to a new seven-acre compound on a brownfield site at Nelson Wharf Business Park in Lowestoft from the Ellough Industrial Estate in Beccles. They also have a paint workshop at Brampton where they produce the huge backcloths which frame stage settings.
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This landmark year has also seen Scenic Projects receive the accolade of the Growing Business Award and be crowned overall Business of the Year 2016 by the Lowestoft and Waveney Chamber of Commerce.
Managing director Nick Garrod says they were thrilled with the awards and the company is hugely optimistic for the future and the potential that the new site offers.
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'We started out as people who have done theatre as a hobby to now designing theatre. This move gives us a chance to do what we need to do to grow the business,' he says.
With 28 full-time staff, supplemented by an additional extra 15 people taken on at busy times such as leading up to the panto season, and a fleet of articulated lorries delivering and moving scenery for up to 450 shows per year – 48 of which are pantos for the forthcoming festive season – from one venue to another, the new premises will offer the opportunity for the company to think bigger and better.
And that is what they are doing with this year's Norwich Theatre Royal panto, following on from the snow-capped mountains scenery they created for last year's panto, Snow White.
Nick was thrilled that The Stage, the UK's foremost entertainment industry publication, described the scenery for last year's panto as 'jaw-dropping'.
'That was amazing and that is exactly what you want it to look like – I suppose we have a lot to live up to this year,' he says.
'Last year, I felt quite emotional when I saw it all at the dress rehearsal. I was amazed. You see bits and pieces in the workshops, but it's not until you start putting everything together that you think 'we have actually achieved this'. Everyone involved – the staff, the artists, the designers – brings together something really special and I think it will be so again this year.'
This year's Wild West theme is certainly something unusual in a panto production.
'It might be a little bit quirky and a little bit off the wall, but as long as it looks great and it complements what the Theatre Royal is doing, then that is what we want to achieve. It will be interesting to see how the public reacts to it because it is going to be so different,' he says.
Stephen Wilson, Scenic's art director who is responsible for many of the designs, agrees: 'It's certainly been a change and it's quite a pleasant change because in the pantomime field there are only so many titles and they are quite repetitive and there are only so many variants, but this has set a bit of a challenge this year – so we have gone back to the drawing board completely.'
Eighty per cent of the set for Norwich Theatre Royal this year is completely new. There are 15 new hand-painted backcloths plus the show gauze (the cloth which carries the show's title) and there are at least a dozen brand new large major scenery truck items – moveable three-dimensional pieces such as a fence and a water tower.
There are also big 'flown' pieces of scenery, which are dropped down onto the stage during the performance, including a general frame, a chandelier and falling beams, plus Dame Nigella Trottalot's ranch house, Dolly the Fairy's saloon, which is reversible, and a prison cell.
One particular special effect is a large steel framed structure. Stephen explains: 'We use lots of unconventional materials – it's a bit like Blue Peter! There will be a lot of canvas and fabric in addition to all the sculptural materials. There is a nice product which is a plastic mesh which you use a heat gun on and it can then be moulded into three-dimensional shapes and painted at the end.'
Nick explains how the process all started almost a year ago.
'Our first meeting for this panto was towards the end of the run of last year's. We looked at some brief ideas, because at that stage the writer and director Richard Gauntlett had yet to write up a script or a scene list for us. We had a presentation meeting in April to touch base and make sure that what we were thinking about was the same as what the production team was thinking about, and then we got the OK to push on with the real design work which started in June.
'Richard has been the director and the star of the shows for so many years that he knows exactly what he wants. He's very imaginative and has got good support from the Theatre Royal to say 'yes, we can take this slightly off the wall theme'. It's great for us to be able to take his brief and try to develop his thoughts into reality.'
Stephen produces all the main designs that go into the workshops and everything starts off in sketch form. Some of the backcloths can be worked up from photographs, but all are hand-painted. With some of the bigger truck pieces, after an initial sketch and two or three meetings with engineers to understand the technical capabilities required and how the movements are going to work with minimal resource to operate them, it is often better to just get down to trying out a build to see what is possible.
'We started to paint the backcloths in August,' says Nick. 'Each one takes a week to a week and a half to get done, and then in October the real manic work begins. Everything comes together in the last few weeks. It's a little bit close to the wire, but showbusiness always is.'
Everything is done in-house and at times the process has to be inventive.
'I think sometimes we drive the imaginative use of material and products,' says Stephen. 'There were one or two giant props needed for a slapstick scene and, because they belong to the giant, they are much larger than life. So for the giant's bowl, we ended up using a fish pond as the starting point for the structure, but most of our materials are common. It's timber, canvas, glue and paint, and thousands and thousands of staples.'
Nick says both he and Stephen have performed in many local pantomimes in Lowestoft.
'We've both donned the frock several times and played opposite each other and thoroughly enjoyed it, and that performance experience helps. The initial brief we receive from Richard is often just bullet points, but we immediately latch on to what it means because we understand where he is going with the gags. We know what he is trying to achieve.'
Jack and the Beanstalk is at Norwich Theatre Royal from December 13 to January 15. Box office: 01603 630000/ www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk.
Jack and the Beanstalk at Norwich Theatre Royal sponsors Norwich Ice Rink at Castle Gardens from December 16 to January 8. See icerinknorwich.co.uk for details.