For ten years I worked at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. On 17th March this year, we were just about to go into tech with the Youth Company’s production of the Dicken’s favourite Oliver Twist. I was Designer and Costume Supervisor. Costume fittings were booked in for 10 of the cast that afternoon and I was dashing around searching for the box of cravats and suitable boots in size 7 when the whole staff were called to an extraordinary meeting. That day our show was cancelled. All non-essential staff (including me) were sent home. Within a week the whole spring season was cancelled and all but four core staff put on the then unheard of scheme – furlough.
By mid-August, the autumn season and crucially – the pantomime, Cinderella, was cancelled and a large proportion of staff (including me) made redundant. This is the truth of theatre in a global pandemic.
I turned to education and in mid-October headed down to Arts University Bournemouth to study for the MA in Historical Costume.
Later that week, out of the blue, I received a very welcome phone call from Owen Calvert-Lyons, Artistic Director & CEO of Theatre Royal, inviting me to be the freelance designer of his new production, the Dicken’s A Christmas Carol! With no way of putting on a viable panto safely in Theatre Royal’s 200 year old, 350 seater auditorium, Owen had come up with the idea of producing an outdoor production for the town. With its links to Charles Dickens, who wrote some of the Pickwick Papers while staying at the Angel Hotel, and visited the Athenaeum, this was the perfect location. It had already been decided that two 3m x 3m stages would be used, with additional playing space between them on Angel Hill, and I was asked to work on a simple set and costume design factoring in the unusual necessity to construct and deconstruct the stages every day as the council were only releasing the parking spaces to us from 3pm daily. The only brief from Owen was that it must be simple and properly ‘traditional’ by being set securely in the 1840s. I began an analysis of the script.
A Christmas Carol begins in Scrooge’s counting house. He then goes home to his ‘gloomy suite of rooms’. The hauntings take him to his old home many years past, to his counting house, to Belle’s ‘modest but homely’ living room, to the Cratchit’s kitchen, to Fred and Alice’s ‘bright, dry, gleaming room’ (via a lighthouse out at sea), to Tiny Tim’s grave in the graveyard. Scrooge then goes back to his bedroom, back to the counting house, back to Fred and Alice’s and the piece ends back in the Cratchit’s kitchen. So seven different settings need to be represented across the two stages.
‘The setting was incredibly atmospheric especially when the last ghost appeared! Bravo!‘
First considerations had to be about the ease and speed of setting up and taking down the stages. That the piece was to be performed in the round was another consideration. No pieces of set could impede the view for the audience. With such relatively small stages, and up to five people in the space at times, furniture and props must also be absolutely minimal. An interesting design challenge to say the least!
Initially I divided Scrooge’s environments – his counting house and living rooms onto one stage and all the other homes onto the other. This allowed me to consider a cold austerity for Scrooge’s environment offset against the warm homeliness of the others. In light of the limitations I first planned to design the floor and the sides of the stages only as illustrative flats using imagery based on time-pieces, Christmas and elements from the script while avoiding the inevitable but unwanted steampunk effect of clocks and Victoriana. Thinking with a pencil is my usual way to start. Deciding on a hearth for the various homes, and a bed for Scrooge’s rooms, I doodled around various ideas eventually taking illustrations off the sides of the stage, moving the lines up into the empty space above creating actual set pieces coming off the sides. As I sketched the black lines of clock fingers for doorways I could see that making them in wrought iron would keep the openness of the stage in the round yet be sufficient to give a sense of place. Working up the sketches into 3D using wire led me to eliminate most of the illustration except for the floors, which were later also discarded in favour of the pure simplicity of line. I was anxious that this was just too pared back, but as it happens, the Production Manager then told me there was no budget for set a painter. Sometimes bold decisions are made easy!
‘A stellar performance … A perfect way in which to start Christmas with simple props used excellently and with great performances from all of the actors.‘
On such a simple set costume needs to do a lot of the work in creating time and place and also providing colour and texture for a rich visual experience. Designing with 1840s costume is relatively straightforward in itself, especially as these were to be hired, so storyboarding was the best method for achieving the different styles required. While Scrooge is Scrooge throughout, all twelve remaining characters are played by just four cast. Costuming has to take into account not only the number of different characters played by each person, but the limitations of the outdoor staging and lack of wings in which to change. In addition, our Ghost of Christmas Future was to be on stilts, 8ft tall, and Tiny Tim a puppet. Again breaking down the script, each actor could have a base costume for their most significant character in the story, so Bob Cratchit had to be a main costume, looking suitably shabby and careworn, yet allow the actor to play his three other roles in the same trousers, shoes and shirt at the very least! The same was true of the other characters, although for the actor playing Fred, young Ebeneezer, Edward, a ghost and a gentleman, there was no need to show class differentiation, making him slightly easier to dress.
1840s womenswear is somewhat tricky bridging as it does the high waisted loosely styled regency era and the tightly corseted big skirted Victorians. With no opportunity for changes, quick or not, the choice was for generic separates for partial changes, or one statement garment to overdress. I opted for dresses, in order to define the era more clearly than separates could do. This meant good outerwear for the first scene and then for one of the actresses a series of tweaks, the addition of an over-apron and mob cap to play the child Martha, the dress itself for Belle, and simply a shawl for Alice. As it turned out the weather was often freezing, so the outerwear and the shawl were all important!
This was all very well for the hires, but the ghosts were to be specific to our show, and I wanted to make these special, while still fulfilling the director’s brief. I love the character of Christmas Past, a joy to design for. Ours was a woman; commanding, funny, a bit sleazy, the wife of a pickpocket. This fact, along with the time element allowed me to play with lots of watches, jewels and handkerchiefs that might have been picked from pockets. The ghost uses a watch to transform time and lead Scrooge on his journey so I used this, plus the influence of John Leech’s ubiquitous illustrations from the original books to design a mostly dateless, but slightly Victorian, green coat, worn over a possibly Miss Haversham like faded white dress, with a masculine top hat and a hint of Christmas in the holly trim, all to overdress Mrs Cratchit!
The Ghost of Christmas Future, played by the same woman, was to be a terrifying ‘Harry Potter dementor- like’ creature, on stilts, according to our director. This was to be a big entrance piece in the play and I knew that the silhouette here was more important than the actual garment. It had to be long and flowy, but not long and flowy enough to catch under the stilts, it had to cover the face sinisterly, but not cover it too much that the actor couldn’t see properly, and it had to be dramatic. In an attempt at economy and sustainability I based my design around a garment I had made a few years ago for panto which I know to be in our store and planned on dying it, reshaping and extending it.
The Ghost of Christmas Present was an interesting challenge. Originally he was written into our script as an athlete, jogging around in some kind of Victorian running garb and would age and become more decrepit throughout the scene (including a change of actor!). Unfortunately this character became a casualty of the trouser situation. It was simply not possible to get both actors out of and back into trousers, onstage, double quick. In the end we opted for this ghost to be a jolly lamplighter, so we could keep the speed of action, the characterisation of the cockney chap, and the aging process while keeping the actors in their base costumes. Matching but aged reefer jackets, scarves and caps transformed our Edward and Bob into the young and old cheeky ghost.
Jacob Marley is the first ghost of course, again a familiar image and well described by Dickens. For me, the overriding factor was again the limitation of overdressing and speed of turnaround. Keeping it simple, I put Marley in a faded, aged cobwebby overcoat and top hat of Marley’s era, and added lightweight chains without the ledgers and money boxes Dickens described.
With the designs agreed, I then switched into my parallel role of Costume Supervisor to actually get the costumes in place. Most often this is a separate role to that of Designer, but sometimes the two come together, particularly in smaller theatres, and in this instance mostly due to pandemic inflicted budgetary necessities. Combining the two roles does give a much greater element of control to me as Designer, however it is also a great deal more work, so I began. Firstly a delve into our own store proved disappointing. Wrong sizes, wrong condition, wrong era etc. Usually hiring costume is very straightforward, however, with most theatres closed so are many hire stores severely limiting choice. Fortunately Bristol Costume services are still open as they service film studios on the same site. Under normal circumstances I would go to the store, choose the costumes and maybe even bring them away with me directly. Under the new safety restrictions however I was not allowed to go to the store and had to rely on the Bristol staff choosing suitable costume for me from my designs and instructions. Luckily I have used this store often in the past and have come to know and trust the staff. On the whole, the costumes that arrived for the first day of rehearsal were pretty close to what I wanted and despite some fitting issues most of the basic costume was hired from Bristol.
As well as being Costume Supervisor for Theatre Royal, I was also their main Costume Maker. With my now freelance position however, and no time to be making myself, I needed to bring in a freelance maker for the two bespoke ghost costumes. Engaging my preferred maker was easy compared to getting materials. With the November lockdown, all ‘non-essential’ shops were shut, and I had to choose fabrics online, and arrange for them to be delivered to Cambridgeshire. Fabric weight, quality and colour are very difficult to judge online so what arrived was somewhat surprising, but actually much nicer than I could have hoped!
‘Great performances and an incredible atmosphere. I’m sure Dickens would have been thrilled.‘
During this time, with the exception of one ‘live’ meeting with the Director to present the designs and model box, production meetings were held on Zoom. The production was to have a soundtrack created especially for it and because of the outdoor public setting, all sound to be delivered to the audience via headphones, a la Silent disco. With the exception of a brief input from myself and the Sound Designer agreeing that things were going well and that we were on track with our work, production meetings were a fascinating mix of spectacularly un-theatrical issues relating to Covid and health and safety. From cones in the carpark, masks for crew, selling tickets to ‘bubbles’ and sanitising headsets everything relating to getting a live audience into a public space for a show was ‘unprecedented’, and a massive task for the skeleton staff still at the theatre.
I travelled back to Bury St Edmunds on 21 November. That was when I had my first sight of the Tiny Tim puppet, having only seen sketches up until then. Although I had designed the clothes for the puppet and drafted up patterns from measurements the puppet maker had supplied, I really had to begin from scratch when I had the puppet in my hands. That weekend I made up the clothes for Tiny Tim, stitching him into them around the handles on his elbows and back. A most unusual making experience! At least when I knitted his jumper it didn’t need a full back on it.
Rehearsals began on Monday 23rd and it was just wonderful being back in the theatre and lovely being back with the team, meeting a new cast, all the buzz of the first day feeling slightly weird in masks. Both portable stages were set up on the theatre’s stage and it was really exciting to see the iron work in place, I was so pleased with it! The Production Manager had made the set himself, and had had to put in some supporting lines that I had not anticipated, and by doing so had altered some of the curves I had drawn, but it looked beautiful.
‘An exceptional show and one of the best performances by Scrooge we have seen in a long time. A very talented team of actors created a most memorable evening for my family.‘
Conducting fittings in a pandemic is yet another unusual situation to be in. Masked and gloved, I could only point to the clothes the actors were to put on themselves, as best they could , before I could go and fasten, pin and fit, in as brief a time as possible. Any costume we rejected had to be put in a separate dressing room and left to hang for two days before being handled again. Our cast formed a working bubble so were allowed to be unmasked together, but in the dressing room we all wore them, making it strangely impersonal.
Two weeks of intensive rehearsal followed for the cast. For me, this was time to alter, repair and smarten up the hires, source missing garments and footwear, make a bonnet or two, and work with the costume maker to complete the ghosts. Jacob Marley’s chains all needed to be stitched onto the coat and scarf he was putting on as a quick change over his Bob costume, This coat and hat also had to be broken down, made shabby, cobwebby and ghostlike. All this is the work the Costume Supervisor does right up to opening night, so I did.
‘A triumph of adversity. This innovative, insiring production raised the spirits of the lucky privileged few in the audience.‘
As the Designer, I was also working with the Deputy Stage Manager to find the right props and small pieces of furniture to complete the set. Luckily the DSM was able to get to two prop stores in Ipswich to supplement what we couldn’t find in ours, and the Production Manager found a perfect chair for Scrooge’s room at auction. With charity shops closed even the smallest props, the gift boxes and pens had to be sourced online. Having scrapped the illustrated floors the intention was to paint floorboards instead, however, with the stages in use all day, and no set painter, one evening on my knees with the ASM painting both floors a darker brown was enough after a long day, so the actual boards never got painted in. I doubt anyone other than me either noticed or cared!
After a freezing tech week of long evenings worrying mostly about the way the lighting affected the aesthetic, whether the quick changes would be quick enough, and whether the multiple layers of thermal wear were sufficient for the cast, or visible, there was no more for me to do. We opened on Friday 11th December. Fortunately, Bury St Edmunds was in tier two so were able to complete the run. Everyone in our cast, crew and wider team managed to stay coronavirus-free, and our socially-distanced audiences in their daily sanitised headsets with disposable covers all stayed safe too.
‘A truly uplifting Christmas performance. In these strange times we actually felt like we experienced escapism enough to relax and enjoy our evening out.‘
The show was really well received and reviewed but the most important thing was that people got to be a part of a whole live experience again, sharing in the energy and wonder that comes from performance. Everything that each one of us does, including the role of the audience, makes live theatre an experience like no other.
‘A Christmas Carol, live at night on Angel Hill? Doesn’t get more Christmassy than that. We loved it.‘
Everyone who worked on this show has their own story, but this is mine.