Setting the scene for Norwich Theatre Royal’s 2016 panto Jack and the Beanstalk
- Credit: Archant
Based on a trading estate in Lowestoft is an unassuming warehouse complex, tucked away at the back of a housing estate. It is home to set designers Scenic Projects, and they've just delivered the sets for Jack and the Beanstalk, the Theatre Royal's 2016 Christmas panto.
We toured the workshop with Stephen Wilson, the firm's Art Director, and Managing Director Nick Garrod.
Starting off in the office, it's where the designs are first sketched out on the computer screen. Looking at some of the initial sketches, it's hard to believe that in a week's time, we'll be seeing actors climbing over these on stage. Nick agrees: 'Last year's was quite emotional, I think - when I saw it at the dress rehearsal, I was quite amazed. There are some fantastic pieces that you see in the workshop, but it's not until you start putting everything together, that you start saying, to yourself, we've actually achieved this!'
From there, we visit the backdrops room, storing those cloth stage settings from the firm's hundreds of sets. Most of these will be rented out to theatre groups, but the sets for Jack and the Beanstalk are all being made specifically for this production. So how does that work?
'Initially, obviously, the ideas come from the director. It starts pretty much as the last panto finishes and we sit down for a production meeting where we'll talk through the ideas. Richard Gauntlett has been the director and star of the shows for so many years, and it's great to be able to sit down with someone who's so imaginative and who's already thinking about next year.'
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'It's great for us to be able to take that brief and to be able to work his thoughts into reality. Once we've got the brief, we start working up some sketch drawings. And by that time, he's most probably changed his mind! Around April and May, we take it forwards and work up the full designs.'
And it's on to the workshop, a warehouse big enough to house the gigantic sets that will fill the Theatre Royal's stage. Currently, it's packed with prairie scenes and the contents of a small Wild West town. That's where Jack and the Beanstalk will be taking place this year, and for Stephen, it's a slightly different project to his normal panto sets: 'In the panto world there are only so many titles and they're quite repetitive in a way. The number of Cinderellas we've been asked to design over the years – there are only so many variants of a design that you can come up with – but this means we can go back to the drawing board completely.'
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As we tour round, it's the sheer size of some of these pieces which is impressive (and appropriate, for a 'giant' of a pantomime like Jack and the Beanstalk). As well as the 'flown' pieces of scenery which will be dropped down onto the stage (including both a ranch-house and full sized saloon bar), the warehouse is littered with props like a horse-drawn carriage, big enough to fit four people inside it. These 'truckies' will be wheeled on and off throughout the performance, and Stephen estimates that there must be at least 30 of them, in varying sizes. 'I think they're certainly going to have a spectacle, in terms of the scenery being provided,' Nick enthuses. 'And actually we've got a lot to live up to, because Snow White, last year, was fantastic. There is some lovely stuff that Stephen's designed.'
So where do Nick and Stephen get their ideas from? The pair laugh, and Nick explains: 'We both perform, actually, in a local panto in Lowestoft. We've both 'donned the frock' several times, and played opposite each other. The one I really loved doing was Cinderella, as a baddie. When you come out at the end and everyone shouts boo – I have to say I loved that!' Stephen nods, 'It does help, actually. The brief that we receive from Richard is only bullet points, but because pantomimes are our background, you immediately understand what he's trying to achieve.'
Nick nods his head thoughtfully. 'Between Richard's great ideas and Stephen's design skills, I believe we've done something really wonderful again.'
Jack and the Beanstalk runs is at Norwich Theatre Royal from December 13 to January 15. Box office: www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk