The magical effects which make panto so special


The cast of Sleeping Beauty

Every panto includes an element of slapstick and a touch of the ‘wow’ factor when audiences can’t quite believe what they are seeing on stage  – and Norwich Theatre’s Royal’s Sleeping Beauty this year is no different.

Previous pantos at the theatre have included priceless messy comedy moments such as liberal lashings of gunge being  thrown around, characters being plunged into stew pots of grime, a rocking pirate ship which tipped everyone flying and a water butt which overflowed soaking the poor panto dame.

And recent gasp-aloud ‘reveals’ have included a full waterfall onstage, a massive inflatable beanstalk and delightful puppets.

To make all this happen, there is a tremendous amount of work going on backstage in the months leading up to panto opening night – and some talented companies are involved in making the festive magic work.

As in previous years, the Theatre Royal is once again working with Scenic Projects at Lowestoft, who have made the enormous backdrop cloths, scenery and larger props, while its in-house technical department has been hard at work on smaller props, lighting and many other elements.

In addition, a specialist theatrical effects company, Water Sculptures from Morecambe in Lancashire, has also been bringing its talents to bear on giving the show an element of excitement and awe.

The company has worked with the Theatre Royal over a number of years on water-based special effects, including the magical waterfall which featured in Snow White in 2015-2016.

Alasdair Elliot, the company’s creative director, and technician Kiefer Cowan told us more about the work that went into this year’s special feature.

Water Features’ Alasdair Elliot and Kiefer Cowan

Can you explain a little more about what Water Sculptures does?

Our business is theatrical effects – from raining blood on stage to flooding a stage with a lake, putting boats on lakes in theatres, lots of raining such as in Singin’ in the Rain numbers. We also do quite a lot of corporate work but our passion is theatre. We love it. We have been doing it for years. My dad started in the 1950s in water effects and myself and my brother, William Elliot, who is our technical director, eventually took over the business and now run it with a small team.  Between us we come up with crazy ideas like the ones we have come up with for Theatre Royal Norwich.

One of your most prestigious projects was the UK and world tour of Singin’ in the Rain – what did that involve?

We did the rain effects for the 2012 revival of the show when it started in Chichester and went into the Palace Theatre in the West End for over a year, and then went out on a UK tour and then a world tour. For something like Singin’ in the Rain, we probably used about 15,000 litres of water each show, because we flooded the stage as well as rained on the actors. We had 300 or 400 metres of flexible hosepipes, valves, electrical controls and filtration plant to keep the water clean because people are dancing in it we don’t want them to get any nasty bugs. There were metres of cables and control equipment used to produce the show.

So what have you conjured up for Sleeping Beauty?

We have worked on a ‘Downton Abbey-esque’ scene in the panto which comes to life with some slightly broken water features that need fixing – and they do tend to get people wet ‘by accident’. They break down when you least expect it to happen, so we have fountains, statues and water jets going off unexpectedly and statues which spray water when they shouldn’t.

Have you encountered any special challenges?

The main issue has been working in such a small space – because the actual set is very small so we have to have lots of valves to adjust the flow so the jets don’t spray out too far. It is just a very compact area, so that is quite a challenge and to have so many effects and each of those effects needing to be switched individually has been quite complicated to do. It’s not rocket science but it takes experience!

How much work is involved in setting it up in the theatre?

We have been sorting out space today. It took us all of one day to build and then a morning to test and improve the effects – and when the Theatre Royal has its technical rehearsals there will be some more time spent getting the water effects looking right. We will probably have around 400 or 500 litres of water on this set and around 100 metres of hose all controlled through the desk at the front-of-house.

Do you enjoy working with the Theatre Royal?

We have a great relationship here. I used to come here as a kid with my dad to put dancing fountains in. It’s a great little theatre and very friendly which I like – and it’s going to be a great panto!

Sleeping Beauty is here until 14 January. Buy tickets now at Norwich Theatre Royal.