You may have actors, dancers, musicians and a fantastic script but you also need some stunning backdrops to bring a pantomime to life.
And that is where a Suffolk-based company comes in. John Bultitude went behind the scenes of the pantomime dream factory bringing festive productions – including the one at Norwich Theatre Royal – to life.
From the outside, it may look like just another industrial unit with hangars, offices, lorries and a mustard-yellow crane in the car-park.
But enter the buildings at Lowestoft-based Scenic Projects and you find a fairy-tale world of festive excitement.
The company has cornered the market in both sets for amateur productions of shows and also, more topically, pantomimes.
From design to delivery, their team are working on well over 50 this year and just one of their showpiece productions is this year’s festive offering at Norwich Theatre Royal.
Sleeping Beauty features a star cast including EastEnders favourite Gillian Wright and ever-popular comedy actor Derek Griffiths.
And as ever with a Theatre Royal pantomime, there is a twist. While the traditional story is the backbone of the piece, the writer/director and perennially- popular panto dame Richard Gauntlett has set part of the show in a Downton Abbey-style stately home.
But how does the finished show go from page to stage? Scenic’s art director Stephen Wilson said they start with just the setting, scene titles and a brief storyline. “The rest is left up to us really. You present some initial ideas and then there can be updates to the storyline.”
There are also particular keynote moments in the show which Stephen and his team will work on first. He explained: “There are one or two specific scenes that you take and work the ideas out which lend themselves to a particular style. You then look at the more incidental scenes.
“One of the challenges with Sleeping Beauty is that you leap forward 100 years and you need to show the change over that period of time. A lot of the action also takes place outside so you need to show the gardens and the topiary pathways.”
Project designer Jay Dobinson added: “We wanted to tie Norwich in as well. I don’t want to reveal too much but there are some local references there, so the audience will recognise some of the locations.”
The creative team also need to ensure the sets have that pantomime look with plenty of colour, but do they have a favourite element within the Sleeping Beauty set? Stephen said: “I think the castle turrets are my favourite. That piece of set revolves and there are some exciting visual effects that will reveal other things.”
The pair said it has been a challenging commission but a lot of fun. “There were an amazing number of new cloths we had to paint. It is a visual feast of imagery which supports the costumes and actors,” said Stephen.
And the Norwich production is just one of many the team have been finishing off in the run up to Christmas. Stephen said: “We had up to 60 leave us in a few weeks so that meant tight deadlines and a few late nights. We had two weeks of very hard work.”
His colleague Jay added: “We schedule the work into weeks and say this work has to be completed. It is very important we keep up with the deadlines.”
Adding into the mix were finishing off sets for a production of Elf in Scotland and also a set for amateur productions of Top Hat which will also be seen at the Theatre Royal when the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society brings it to the stage in early 2018. They were also asked to create an entire street scene for a corporate event in the Midlands at very short notice but, as managing director Nick Garrod explained: “You do really have to take the work when it is there.”
But despite the huge workload, the enthusiasm and passion for creating the perfect backdrop for performances shows no sign of abating.
But there is no doubt that even when the workload is high, the Scenic team really love their work and pantomimes give them the chance to see their work in all its glory. Jay said: “The sets are illustrative. With a lot of other shows, you are looking for realism but with pantomime, anything goes.”
And Stephen enjoys the moment when he can sit in an auditorium and see the team’s finished work on stage. He said: “I love the enjoyment that the public and audience get and knowing you have contributed to it. It is also an opportunity for us to see our work on stage. You can have drawings and also use computer programs to create a three-dimensional effect but there is nothing like seeing it in person. I have to confess, I love pantomime too.”
So the stage is set, literally, for another successful Scenic year as they bring festive joy to pantomime audiences in Norwich and countrywide.
Sleeping Beauty is here until 14 January. Buy tickets now at Norwich Theatre Royal.