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Backstage Costume Interviews News Pantomime Theatre

Creating costumes for the best loved pantomime in the North of England

It’s that time of year again…Oh no it isn’t! Sorry, we couldn’t resist. Seeing as pantomime season is now firmly upon us it seemed only fitting that we should interview the costume team for one of the best-loved annual pantomimes in the north of England. We spoke to Celia Perkins (Designer) and Bridget Bartley (Wardrobe Supervisor) about their work on this year’s pantomime at Oldham Coliseum, Cinderella.

What is differences designing for a panto compared to other shows?

Celia: Essentially there’s no difference because you still have to go from a script, you’ve got your actors and you’ve got to stick to a budget, you still do research for it and you’ve still got to think about movement and comfort. You treat it like any other production.
But then, the difference is that visually, you’ve got much more free reign as a designer. Stylistically you can put lots of contemporary references in and subvert things. You’ve got an opportunity for your own style to emerge and it’s a reflection of you and your imagination. A painter recently said to me ‘it’s like looking at your drawings and into your mind’.

Another difference is that it’s nine weeks of performance and with a production like Cinderella you’ve got to think of storage as there are two Dames. Sometimes we have to fly the costumes out as there is no space in the quick change area, so there are also those logistics to think about.

What’s the maintenance like?

Bridget: For the nine weeks that panto runs we’ll have running repairs and maintenance to make sure that everything looks as good on the last performance as it does on the first. And of course, there is endless washing! About 400 loads over the run. You’ve also got to have lots of spare tights because of that emergency ‘Aaaaagh! I’ve got a ladder in my tights!’ situation before everyone goes on.

Celia: I’m not so privy to the maintenance because by then it’s all up and running. When I’m designing, for instance, the chorus, sometimes they’ve got to share costumes and you don’t want to share sweaty costumes – we’ll think about how we might make it so that it looks like a dress but actually it’s a blouse and a dress, so they’ve all got their own blouses and obviously bloomers and leotards.

What is the ethos when designing for an Oldham panto? Is there a continuity in design from year to year?

Celia: It’s a very traditional panto, and the audience expects it to be that traditional ‘Oh No You’re Not, He’s Behind You, Boo and Hiss’ Panto. I think for us technically and visually, production wise, we want to get bigger and better each year because we want to try and top what we’ve done before. The continuity of design is probably through my style, and we have actors that you know and have worked with before so you know what suits them physically and what they like to do action wise so you make sure that they can do that in their costumes. Fine Time really uses his costumes. He got stuck in his costume one year and now he puts it in every year. The second time he did it I thought it had happened again but it was a joke… you also know what the actors are willing to put up with so you can push those boundaries too!

I’ll set it in a particular period; it might be Tudor or Georgian, and then I’ll introduce lots of contemporary references for the dames: lots of pop culture and food is always a favourite subject. This year is Edwardian, which means Wardrobe get to do some nice cutting, which you’ll see from the photographs. We try to be true to a period and then we’ll subvert it and push it in different directions.

Fine Time’s Dame is usually quite ‘blokey’, does this have any influence on the designs for his role as one of the Ugly Sisters this year?

Celia: It’s a deliberate choice to go blokey for the Dames because clearly they are men dressed as women; rather than being the fantastic art of drag, this is pantomime. I think the biggest influence is the wearing of the Doc Marten boots. It’s a bit of a trademark for him and they’re comfortable. It’s much more slapstick; he can muck about in them. Simeon is a blokey Dame too, so it works well for the Ugly Sisters.

It’s traditional, you get that repartee with the audience – all the small children are confused and their parents think it’s hilarious.

Have you had any adventures with stilettos for Principle Boys?

Celia: The actors are trained to dance in high heels, one of our former Principle Boys, Justine, would probably go to sleep in her high heeled boots. We always check whether they’ll be all right in them and they usually are. Sue, our Villain this year, has some very high heeled shoes in the ballroom scene but she’s quite happy in them and she’s just wearing them for one scene. As long as they’re not going to injure themselves and they can do the dances everyone is happy.

How long does it take to get everything complete? When did you start this process?

Celia: Well, sometimes we start now – chatting about ideas and things for the next script.

Bridget: We always joke in Wardrobe that it’s Christmas for six months of the year in the workroom but in actual fact we work on panto for longer!

Celia: It’s Christmas all year round really, with a little break in January. I’ll start work on designs after getting a script in around about March because they need the Dame costume designs from April onwards to be able to start making them as they’re such big constructions.

Bridget: And depending on what other shows we have on and what the workload is we potentially start working on them from that point. We do our first fittings in May-June.

Celia: I do the set as well so the cloth painting starts in July and we usually have the first production meeting in the first two weeks of July. Everything is made by us, it’s made new because the last one gets sold on.

Bridget: Once the final show of the spring –summer season has opened we work on Panto over the summer months and from then on there will be two of the department working on panto costumes full-time around two autumn season shows. Once the show has opened there are two of us dressing on every show

The shoes are amazing, what happens to them afterwards?

Celia: If we can sell the costumes and shoes together it all goes together because we can reinvest the money into the next show, or they go into store and they’ll get used again – probably not the next year, but they might get used the following year. Or if the actor likes their shoes and they want to buy them they can!

Can you tell us a little about wig making, hats and makeup styling?

Celia: If you’re doing set and costumes you even have to think about what teacup somebody uses, what makeup they wear or what pair of earrings they’re going to wear. Everything you see on the stage is chosen or influenced by the designer.

For me, once first nights up that’s my designing job over but for everybody here they’ve got nine more weeks of the show. I do pop in every now and again and do the mystery customer thing to make sure it all looks as lovely as it did on first night.

On average, how many costumes does the Dame have per production?

Celia: You’re looking at around about six or seven – sometimes eight. In a show like Mother Goose there’s more because it’s a Dame led panto, whereas with Cinderella we’ve had to be quite strict because we’ve got two Dames which means twice as much fabric and twice as much padding.

What’s the oddest thing you’ve had to create in a panto?

Celia: Odd is the norm in panto, unreality is the reality so nothing is odd to create. You want things to be at a heightened reality and sometimes visually bizarre. We’ve had a newspaper chip cone, Champaign glasses – they were hard because we used Perspex to be the actual Champaign glass and it had to be self-supporting so there was a lot of construction and physics going on. We’ve even had an Easter Egg at Christmas.
With the Dame it’s quite nice to start off with a traditional costume, everyone’s in perhaps Georgian costumes, or in this case Edwardian, and then you go steadily more bonkers as you go through the show. It’s quite nice to reference pop culture as well, like Kim Kardashian for the Mother Goose transformation a couple of years ago.

Spotlight on the team:

Celia Perkins

Celia trained in Theatre Design at Croydon College and the Slade School of Fine Art.

After moving to the North West to work for The Library Theatre Company, Manchester, as an Assistant Scenic Artist, Celia began her long and happy association with the Coliseum, starting as Assistant Scenic Artist and then becoming Resident Designer. She has designed over 30 productions for the Coliseum, ranging from traditional pantomime and musicals to straight plays and comedies – ultra-realism to pure fantasy!

Her designs for Oldham Coliseum Theatre include: Laurel and Hardy; Me Mam Sez; A Different Way Home; From a Jack to a King; Home, and more recently Our Gracie. In Pantoland, her designs include Aladdin; Dick Whittington; Jack and the Beanstalk; Mother Goose; Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.

Her other work includes designs for: Mikron Theatre; Octagon Theatre, Bolton; Arden School of Theatre; Hard Graft Theatre Company and Kindred Theatre Company, and dance pieces for Choreographer Susie Crow at The Burton Taylor Theatre, Oxford and The Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells.

Bridget Bartley
Wardrobe Supervisor at Oldham Coliseum Theatre

Bridget studied at Stafford College of Art, gaining a BTEC National Diploma in Fashion Design and Pattern Cutting and then the former Mabel Fletcher Technical College in Liverpool, gaining a BTEC Higher National Diploma in Theatre Costume.

Her first job was as a Wardrobe Assistant at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield before she moved to London in 1991. Whilst in London a few of her projects included working on costumes for Tosca, staged at Earl’s Court, and working for English National Opera at the London Coliseum on and off until she and her family moved to Oldham to start work at the Oldham Coliseum in 2003.

Bridget has worked on dozens of Coliseum productions over the years, with designs covering multiple periods and even fantasy lands! This year’s production is her third Cinderella at the theatre and her 16th Coliseum pantomime.

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