When Cunard’s magnificent new liner, the 92,400 ton Queen Elizabeth, set sail on her maiden voyage from Southampton last month she took a bit of Suffolk with her. On board, in the 900-seat Art Deco style Royal Court theatre, were sets made by Scenic Projects of Brampton.
Tony Mallion visits the company which makes scenery fit for a Queen.
It's the most unlikely place to find a dream factory. You head out on the Halesworth road from Beccles, in my case beginning to wonder if you're lost, then come across a complex of one time farm buildings in which are created stage sets for pantomimes, musicals and, yes, the most famous ocean-going luxury liner too.
My visit coincided with the final stages of the construction of scenery for the new Queen Elizabeth, the third Cunarder to bear that name. 'We were introduced to the client (Belinda King Creative Productions) a year ago and had a visit to the Queen Victoria which has an identical theatre,' explains Scenic Projects Managing Director Nick Garrod, as we stand in the busy workshop surrounded by work in progress.
This was a race against the clock. 'We were contacted eight weeks ago, we had two weeks to pull together the costings and samples. These were agreed and the next week we started.' The artwork, theming and props for the shows had all been created by West End designer Hugh Durrant, whose work includes the Monty Python musical Spamalot. Scenic Projects resident designer Stephen Wilson picks up the story: 'All the design was done but there was no detail so we had to liaise with the designer by e-mail and a couple of visits'.
The deadline involved getting the pieces to the shipyard in Italy by mid-September so it could be craned into the theatre in good time for the official handover and naming by Her Majesty the Queen. No pressure then! The on-board theatre is host to a wide range of entertainment: currently three musicals; three Neil Simon comedies;a Shakespeare; poetry readings and a quiz show.
Unlike normal scenery the sets for a ship are built around metal frames to give them added stability. The metalwork came from Brilliant Stages in Hertfordshire whose other work has included Take That tours. Fagan Electrical were responsible for the built-in lighting, with some of their team beavering away behind me in Brampton to make sure it would all be alright on the night. 'We're trying to minimise the amount of work which will be needed on board' explained Stephen.
It all went according to plan, the sets dismantled and loaded into trucks for their three day journey to Trieste. This is the latest development for Scenic Projects who have become the UK's leading designer and supplier of sets to both amateur and professional companies. 'This job is really good for our CV, to be seen to be doing more professional work,' said Nick. They employ 18 full time staff, and draft in others as needed.
This year they have taken over the production of the Norwich Theatre Royal pantomime scenery for the first time. They are supplying 25 professional pantos in total, seven of them for Paul Holman Associates, including Snow White at Lowestoft Marina. They will also be back there at the end of January with the Lowestoft Players' Robin Hood. Throughout the autumn nearly 200 sets have headed out from Brampton and the company's large store at Ellough Industrial Estate, one of them, Calamity Jane, going as far as Luxembourg.
But Lowestoft, and the Players, is at the heart of what they do. Stephen Wilson, a former head of art at a Woodbridge school, joined the amateur group 40 years ago, followed by his brothers Peter, Martin and Gerald – all of whom are now involved with Scenic Projects. In the early 1970s Stephen, Martin and others began building Players sets for the musical Showboat out of necessity.' We'd made a loss on the previous show' he admits, so it was a way to economise. They never looked back, or stopped making more and more elaborate sets.
Now the Marina Theatre is the template for all their Scenic Projects designs. 'I always use the Marina as my marker, knowing that it has to go on that stage. If we can get it on there it will work anywhere' says Stephen who trained as a textile designer at university but always enjoyed three dimensional work and model-making: 'I was brought up in the Blue Peter school, every set design is a challenge and I'm thinking, how can I do this?' He always finds a way.
Brother Martin and Nick Garrod, who had joined the Lowestoft Players in 1978, initially set up a company creating theme parks and attractions, not least an ambitious Santaland in Lapland. Stephen eventually left teaching and joined them. Stage sets came about when they decided they could make scenery for amateur productions of Singing in the Rain which would feature real rain! They advertised this through the National Operatic and Dramatic Association, even though they hadn't constructed it. Orders poured in.
Scenic Projects acquired the stock of two other scenery hirers, Stage Sets and SLX, and have grown steadily. Demand for Disney's Beauty and the Beast has meant creating four different versions this year ('We're pretty much Beauty and the Beasted out' said Stephen) and work has already started on designs for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard which was only released a month ago for amateurs. Meawnhile Nick, Stephen and the team are already wondering how they might create a flying car if Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is – as widely expected – licensed for amateur performance.
This is a team for whom there really is no business like show business. They will all be involved with the Players panto, Stephen playing the part of Dame, a role which Nick Garrod has also taken regularly in the past. He says :'You've got a company here that loves theatre. Martin makes things work for people. There's a sense of achievement making it work. Right now there's an expectancy and nervousness about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but so far we've risen to every challenge'. And Stephen adds: 'We all had a wish that what we do as a hobby could be a job.' It's a wish come true.