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A look behind the scenes of a panto costume department

PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 December 2018

Planet Costume Services working on Jack and the Beanstalk Photo: Claire Bore

Planet Costume Services working on Jack and the Beanstalk Photo: Claire Bore

claire bore

Glass slippers, beanstalks, candy canes… and dames. Claire Bore talks to the local costume departments helping to create the Panto Land of Make Believe.

Tim Heywood's costume designs for Derby Theatre's Hansel and Gretel Photo: Tim HeywoodTim Heywood's costume designs for Derby Theatre's Hansel and Gretel Photo: Tim Heywood

If you were to write a recipe for the perfect pantomime you would probably take a fairy tale and a sprinkle of celebrities, add in a beautiful backdrop, riveting musical score and back-slapping jokes, sieve in some magical sparkle, an audience singalong and a smidge of ‘He’s behind you’. Then there’s the secret ingredient… costumes. While pantomimes have been gracing theatres for centuries, today’s modern productions are bold, brash and undeniably a Christmas tradition. Costumes need to be made of luxurious materials in vibrant colours, custom-made garments with hidden sections and poppers that allow for quick changes – helping to create the perfect illusion.

Humble beginnings

Tucked away in a less than glamorous industrial estate in Nottinghamshire is Planet Costume Services Ltd, home to the costume department of Little Wolf Entertainment, the masters of Derby LIVE’s pantomime at Derby Arena. Boxes are stacked high: sequins in one, metres of fabric folded in another, and there’s the clickety clack of machines gently working away in the background on this year’s spectacular Jack and the Beanstalk.

Planet Costume Services working on Jack and the Beanstalk Photo: Claire Bore Planet Costume Services working on Jack and the Beanstalk Photo: Claire Bore

There are the usual pins and needles, tape measures, mannequins and clothes rails but also more unusual elements: polycarbon structures with miniature doors, plastic fabric, sheets of plastic DIY products, PVC, fake fur and UV materials. No, we’re not in the set department, these are additional details to costumes that put the pizazz into panto…

The creative process

At the haberdashery helm are Liz Coleman and Emma Waugh. They have dressed stars ranging from the late Cilla Black, Priscilla Presley and Jerry Hall to ‘the Hoff’ David Hasselhoff and Emmy Award-winner Henry Winkler, so no costume is too difficult for them. ‘It’s a complete collaboration between the team, a real creative process. We try and plan a year in advance. Morgan is a dream to work with because his drawings are so clear. It really helps us visualise the costumes,’ says Emma.

In the wardrobe department: a Dame's outfit for Buxton Opera House's panto Photo: Jo DeavilleIn the wardrobe department: a Dame's outfit for Buxton Opera House's panto Photo: Jo Deaville

The aforementioned Morgan Brind is a man of many talents, writer, actor and costume designer for Little Wolf Entertainmnet. ‘I start by drawing out the designs in March. We then begin sourcing materials and working out how to incorporate unusual materials into the designs. We like to be inventive, for example this year we are using a lot of plastic. By July we need to have the main costumes ready for press calls so we’re always working to deadlines. Duncan James’ Jack costumes took a week to stitch the trousers,’ he says.

They are not alone. Across Derbyshire from Chesterfield’s Pomegranate Theatre to Buxton Opera House and Derby Theatre, costume designers and wardrobe masters are working away.

‘We start planning the costumes about 10 months ahead of the show opening. The style should always be led by the script, so we have lots of meetings... and because we produce shows throughout the year we have to squeeze all this in amongst the other things we do,’ says long-serving costume designer and Derby’s Theatre’s Head of Wardrobe Tim Haywood, who is currently working on the family show Hansel and Gretel.

It’s a similar story for Eve Wilkinson, exclusive costume designer for over 20 years with Paul Holman Associates, who works from a base in Glossop. Here the costume store houses over 4,000 costumes with Eve being responsible for nine pantomimes across the UK. Attracted by the glitz and glamour, she has worked with the likes of Ann Widdecombe, Chesney Hawkes and Linda Robson. In the midst of creating ballgowns for Cinderella at Chesterfield’s Pomegranate Theatre, Eve says the design process begins in her head rather than on paper. ‘I get straight onto the sewing machine to try my ideas out and the design evolves from there.’

This creative process is mirrored by Buxton Opera House’s costume designer and maker, Jo Deaville. ‘I plan the costumes in conversation with Philip Dart the writer/director after carefully reading the script. I don’t always do drawings – Philip and I have worked together for so long that sometimes I just describe something that’s in my head and he gets it. I make all my own patterns and often experiment till something works.’ It’s a lengthy process, adds Jo, who is working on Dick Whittington. ‘I usually start thinking about the first set of costumes in April, when we are planning the photoshoot for the poster and leaflet with the two lead names. It’s often the headgear that gives me the inspiration for the rest of the costume. It certainly works that way with the Dame’s outfits. I start on the rest when the remaining cast members are confirmed in the summer. The making process often results in many late nights, particularly coming up to the technical and dress rehearsals. Once the first public performance is over I can usually relax a little!’

When it comes to timescales, there has to be a certain amount of flexibility. ‘It often depends very much on who we cast so plans often have to change,’ says Planet Costume Services’ Liz Coleman. Then there are the practicalities. ‘We may not always be able to get a particular type of pattern or material. We usually only have a week to try out costumes and adapt them before it goes to stage, often there will be last minute changes. It’s a relief to see it on the stage in the end,’ she adds.

It’s a delicate balancing act – the costume department has to weigh up the needs of the production and the director’s vision with that of the actor. ‘Dressing them is an intimate thing,’ says Paul Holman Associate’s Eve Wilkinson. ‘They obviously want to look their best, but they may have body hang ups so we may adapt things slightly until they are happy. Ultimately, they have to go out into the spotlight and we want them to be comfortable doing so,’ she adds.

Magic

So, is all the effort worth it? Emma Waugh says there is nothing quite like it. ‘When you see cast members step into their costumes it’s like a transformation. They really become the character, they may stand taller, walk in a different way, hold themselves differently. The costumes are such a big part of the pantomime. They are so vibrant and stand out on stage. They help the actors to create and really become the characters.’

In fact, production staff from across the region believe unanimously that costumes are the lifeblood of the panto. ‘Everybody likes to see glamour on the stage in the Land of Make Believe,’ says Chesterfield’s Cinderella costume designer Eve Wilkinson. ‘A beautiful costume can bring the story to life and take your breath away.’

‘They bring the characters to life,’ agrees Producer Alan Bowles from Derby LIVE’s Jack and the Beanstalk. ‘We really spend a lot of time and effort on our costumes. It’s not a case of hiring them in. We make them from scratch – they are integral to our productions’. This attention to detail doesn’t go unnoticed. ‘We always invite children onto the stage during our performances. One little girl, dressed in her Belle outfit, told us that she was so pleased to meet Belle because she had a proper ballgown on,’ adds Morgan Brind.

For children in particular the vibrancy and ability to step into another world is important. Jo Deaville of Buxton Opera House says, ‘The costumes are incredibly important – especially for young children who love colour and sparkle. All kids love dressing up and it’s great for them to see grown-ups wearing fabulous, fantasy costumes.’ It is exactly that ‘believability’ that makes it so special, says Hansel and Gretel’s Tim Haywood. ‘The costumes make the character real and believable and that is the ultimate essence of the magic. Costumes are all magic and wonder and fabulousness!’

While there is no doubting that the long creative process is rewarding, can these costume professionals ever switch off or are they always in panto mode? ‘I tend to collect anything I see for future pantomimes,’ admits Morgan. ‘I have some miniature wheelie bins that are just waiting for the right Dame costume!’ Watch this space…

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