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Where are background scenes for theatre productions made?

The Madagascar set. Photo: Mark Dawson
The Madagascar set. Photo: Mark Dawson

When the curtain goes up on a show at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, you might have an intake of breath at the sight before you. Is it an Edwardian drawing room? Or a magical land where mythical characters live? Or is it the backdrop for a much-loved musical. Anyone lucky enough to have seen Singin’ in the Rain on stage can experience the title song accompanied by a real downpour.

But behind every wet rendition of the iconic Gene Kelly number is a water tank under the stage and a team of people ready to dry the floor in time for the second half.

It is at the Theatre Royal’s production facility on the water’s edge that this kind of theatrical magic happens. It is here at TR2 that skilled and creative staff turn a designer’s drawings, ideas and small scale models into theatre sets that could be sent all over the world. A staggering 95 per cent of the work they do here is destined for outside the city. Sending sets to Europe, America and the Far East is all in a day’s work.

Great British Life: TR2 sits at the water's edge in Cattedown, Plymouth. Photo: TRPTR2 sits at the water's edge in Cattedown, Plymouth. Photo: TRP

Brendan Clarke is justifiably proud as he takes me on a tour of the workshop where they are putting the finishing touches to a throne for The Wizard of Oz, where the wicked witch will melt and disappear (I won’t spoil the illusion by revealing how). They are also working on the set for Steven Moffat comedy The Unfriend. The suburban house looks impressively solid, but Brendan seems equally excited about the craftsmanship audiences never see. The beautiful carpentry on the back of the sets, the way they can be dismantled to be packed into a pantechnicon to travel the country or be transported around the world.

‘We have done two Miss Saigon sets in a year – one for Sheffield and one for Norway,’ says Brendan, head of workshop at TR2. ‘We also go to America and it’s not uncommon for us to go to Japan and other areas of the Far East, across all genres of theatre.

‘We do a lot of UK tours and shows in the West End, like The Enfield Haunting. There’s a lot of competency here and we were able to build that set in just three weeks. We have built some elements of The Wizard of Oz UK tour and Crazy For You. There’s quite a lot of competition out there – there are big workshops in the UK. We might be bidding for work in Texas against other workshops here.’

Great British Life: At work building scenery which will go all around the world. Photo: TRPAt work building scenery which will go all around the world. Photo: TRP

Helen Costello, chief operations officer, says the quality of work at TR2 gives them an edge. ‘It’s worth saying that we really build to a high quality level. Certainly many top producers like our work. We have a really stable team here - a core of 20 people – and we look at freelancers in the same way that we look at our own team. Down here we are quite isolated so we have to grow our own skills base and protect it. We got money from the Theatre Artists Fund to support training for our team to future proof our skills base.’

The talent of the TR2 team ensures they can create complex sets. Big The Musical opened at the Theatre Royal Plymouth in December 2016 before heading into the West End. It had an automated floor and a triple ‘doughnut’ revolve (a circle, within a circle, within a circle) which had to turn in different directions at the same time. To cap it all, there was a four tonne video wall. By building this complex scenery at TR2, the company was able to rehearse on the actual set.

‘For Madagascar, we refurbished the set and we had some real problems to do with how the proscenium arch functioned – there was a huge manual handling problem,’ says Brendan. ‘It was going back out on tour with a smaller team. Because of the size of the space we have here and the problem solving skills of our team, we were able to devise a method to make the set go up and self-deploy.

Great British Life: The iconic helicopter for Miss Saigon. Photo: Cameron MackintoshThe iconic helicopter for Miss Saigon. Photo: Cameron Mackintosh

‘We did a set for a production of Evita at The Curve, Leicester, and needed to build a staircase that would have 30 people on it. So it had to be solid. And then we found out that it would need to go in a lift that was 2 metres high by 1.2 metres wide. We ended up building it in 18 sections but it still had to support 30 people.’

Brendan and Helen are enthusiastic ambassadors for the Theatre Royal and TR2, proud of the skills of their teams, of bringing people to Plymouth and taking TRP’s name around the world.

‘We built the set for Bat Out Of Hell on tour and we took our team to see it,’ says Helen. ‘A really rare treat.’

Brendan loves the magic of seeing a set on stage. ‘And then I worry about will it work…’

theatreroyal.com

Great British Life: Bat Out of Hell. Photo: Chris Davis StudioBat Out of Hell. Photo: Chris Davis Studio



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