A tour of Keswick and a look at the Theatre by the Lake’s costume department

Keswick Market Square

Keswick Market Square - Credit: Archant

It’s not just the landscape around this Lakeland town that is packed with drama, as Eileen Jones discovers

Set and Costume Designer, Martin Johns, at The Theatre by the Lake

Set and Costume Designer, Martin Johns, at The Theatre by the Lake - Credit: Archant

Remember the excitement of opening the dressing-up box and finding just what you needed to be a pirate or a princess? Then imagine the thrill of going backstage at the Theatre by the Lake, peeping into rooms to which there is no public access and finding dresses to die for. And blood-spattered shirts!

Martin Johns is my guide, set designer and costume designer extraordinary, a man who has made theatrical dreams come true from the West End to Broadway, and is now setting and meeting creative challenges in Keswick. This is where he allegedly ‘retired’ to wind down, no longer wanting to ‘charge around the country.’ The wider theatrical world’s loss has been Keswick’s gain.

Theatre by the Lake opened on the shores of Derwentwater in August 1999, willed into existence, they say, by passionate theatre lovers as a permanent replacement for the Blue Box, a mobile theatre created after the Second World War to take plays to towns and cities.

Blue Box was a regular visitor to Keswick with its long convoy of wagons, including dressing rooms, bedsits and canteen, grinding up and down Lake District hills. It settled permanently in a car park in Keswick in 1975 and retired to Snibston Discovery Park in Leicestershire in 1996.

Theatre by the Lake was the last theatre to be built in Britain in the old millennium and the first to be built with the help of money from the national lottery. It has since staged more than 100 plays, commissioned new work, established a reputation for high production values and found a loyal all-year-round audience of locals and visitors.

Martin has been there from the outset, along with his partner, the artistic director Ian Forrest, with whom he shares a converted barn and two acres of garden in the Eden Valley. And one of the shows currently featuring in the main house programme, Goldsmith’s 18th century romantic comedy She Stoops to Conquer, sees his imaginative creativity reaching a new pinnacle. Both the set and the costumes are showstoppers, luscious and lavish, with impeccable attention to historical veracity and dress-making detail.

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Here, in the dressing room reserved for the three female leads, are gowns of exquisite gorgeousness, all made in silk. One, for the character of Mrs Hardcastle, in layers of gold, cost around £1,200 to make. Another, black, sequinned and ribboned, was created with fabric whose price per metre Martin refused even to whisper.

It was something of a sharp descent down to earth to notice, in the room next door, that red-splattered shirt, which wardrobe maintenance supremo Sam Newland was ‘re-blooding’ for its next appearance in one of the studio productions, ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore.

Martin brought out his working portfolio to illustrate how the design process happens. He begins with a very detailed white card model of the set, while props are sourced locally, often in Lancaster.

The costumes are based on Martin’s research in books, online, and even at the V&A museum. It is, he says, a great bonus if he knows the actors, and can picture the bodies below the theatrical head-shots. ‘Casting comes first. The costumes (for She Stoops) are very tightly-fitted and corseted.’

Martin sources the fabrics in Birmingham or London, choosing silk because it will fall the way that the outfit should, and because heavier fabrics would be very warm indeed for the actors. The costumes are actually made by freelance dressmakers all over the country, from Edinburgh to London. Martin works with freelance costume supervisor Ruth Sabin, who lives in the Forest of Dean. ‘She’s brilliant at getting it all organised.’ The theatre has its own stock of wigs, and a resident stylist.

Martin’s involvement in the creative process is both intimate and dynamic. And then, after the first night, it’s all over, and while the show might run for six months, he will be working on the designs for the next production. In Keswick’s case, this is the musical version of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, adapted for the stage originally at Bristol Old Vic by Helen Edmundson, with songs by Neil Hannon, and which played in the West End two Christmases ago.

This will be a very different production. Martin hasn’t seen the show at all ‘and that’s probably a very good thing, because I have my own ideas of how it should be.’ He was brought up on the Ransome stories as a child, and loves them. He’s seen shots of the West End version and wonders if it was, perhaps, over-designed. ‘I want to make it so that we can believe the children are creating their own boat, their own adventure.’ It might, he hints, start in the present, with one of the children in the story reminiscing in an attic, looking back.

Martin’s own story began in Middlesbrough, from where he went to study stage design at the Wimbledon School of Art. ‘We did everything, including the sewing. Yes, I can run up a pair of curtains, or make a hat.’ He then spent a year on a Sadler’s Wells design course ‘which was fabulous.’ His career began in provincial theatres in Newcastle, York and Leicester, before he found international success with a production of Me and My Girl, working in the West End, Broadway, Australia and Germany.

His own favourite show was The Hired Man, based on the novel by Melvyn Bragg. ‘We did it at the Astoria in London, where we were selling Cumbria to audiences who didn’t know the region. Then I loved what we did with it here, where the experience was completely different.’

He has seen technological developments which have allowed the printing of floors, carpets, backdrops and the extraordinary projections now possible. ‘But then we had the train last year, very traditional but still surprising,’ he says referring to the The Railway Children. At Keswick, he believes, he has done some of his strongest design work, with a great deal of variety. ‘And it’s a great team to work with.’

In November the luscious Georgian gowns will be put away and replaced in the dressing room by pirate outfits and Jolly Roger flags. And by then, Martin Johns will be working on next spring’s production at the theatre.

For show details: www.theatrebythelake.com or ring 017687 74411

While you’re there

Five things to put on your ‘must do’ list when you go to visit Keswick:

1 Look for some rare creatures, at the Dubwath Silver Meadows nature reserve. It’s a newly opened seven hectares wetland site, once part of Bassenthwaite Lake and is now home to a range of special wetland flora and fauna. www.dubwathsilvermeadows.org.uk

2 Be quick on the draw, at the Keswick Pencil Museum. You are invited to discover the secrets behind the fascinating history of the escape artist’s pencil that RAF pilots carried with them during the war to guide them safely home. There are often artists and cartoonists running workshops.


3 Sail around the lake. The Keswick launch is a water-bus service calling at seven landing stages on Derwentwater, and a great way to walk and ride. The summer timetable runs until November 10, but you can already book for the Father Christmas cruises (sherry and mince pies for the grown ups). www.Keswick-launch.co.uk

4 Climb Catbells. It is only 1481ft, (451 metres) but has an unmistakable outline and a splendid summit. The fell’s unusual name may well have come from a distortion of “Cat Bields” meaning shelter of the wild cat.

5 Dine out and stay in style. The Kings Arms, with a stunning range of real ales and whiskies, has just been awarded 3 AA stars. The Conservatory at Skiddaw Hotel is the best place to watch life in Keswick go by while the Lodore Falls Hotel is the area’s newest AA Rosette restaurant. If you are a wine-lover, the Borrowdale Hotel’s general manager is a Master Sommelier and offers wine tasting for diners. The Cottage in the Wood, is one of Britain’s best B&Bs with an award-winning dining room.

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