UK Productions' costume department in Blackpool bringing Christmas to life on theatre stages across the country
At first glance, the studios of UK Productions' costume department appear to be complete chaos.
But let your eyes linger over the shelves of threads and ribbons and boxes of fabric for more than a couple of seconds, and it soon becomes apparent that this is in fact a den of complete and utter meticulous organisation.
Spools of cotton and ribbons are lined up with all the glorious technicolor precision of a rainbow.
Rail upon rail of costumes are labelled ready for dispatch to theatres across the country.
And tights, wig caps, belts, shoes and more are all boxed up for the off.
Tucked away in this hidden warehouse on a South Shore industrial estate, costume queen Liz Dennis and her team of workers are busy creating more magic than a hive of honey bees.
The wardrobe department will be supplying thousands of costumes in the next few weeks for pantomimes up and down the country being staged by UK Productions - which is the company behind the Grand Theatre’s annual festive spectacular.
This year, Liz and her team have been tasked with creating a whole set of costumes for a brand new panto production of Beauty And The Beast at the Grand.
“We know Beauty And The Beast really well, as UK Productions staged a national tour of the Disney musical a while ago,” Liz said.
“But even doing that version, we had to make them different from the original Disney stage show and have the designs approved by Disney - and this time it’s another step different again.“But it’s still the same traditional story and I can’t wait to see it.
“We have some fab cancan dresses at the start of act two. They have been challenging but I hope they’ll look amazing.
“Then there’s Belle’s dress and making the Beast’s costume work; we’ve got to get the balance for young children coming to see it and him not being too scary, but also that he has this spell cast over him.
“At the beginning of rehearsals for the Grand, we’ll drop off the costumes and be there are dress and technical rehearsals to see how it all comes together - although I’m sure there will be some teething troubles as there always are with a new show.”
But their work doesn’t stop there.
Once all the costumes are dispatched in December, they deep clean the warehouse and studios.
And in the new year - once panto season is over – it takes two to three months for the costumes to be cleaned and stored ready for the next year.
The summer months are often occupied with making dance show costumes, and year-round they’re designing and making outfits for UK Productions’ other shows and other production houses too.
“This year has been pretty massive for us, doing three new shows in one year, as well as having UK Productions’ tours of Kite Runner and Legally Blonde coming back in to us,” said Liz, who grew up in Penwortham, Preston, attending All Hallows Catholic High School and Newman College before training in costume design in London, and eventually returning to UK Productions in Blackpool 17 years ago initially as a wardrobe assistant before taking over the department.
“We’re putting together [costumes for] Wizard Of Oz next year, and The Sound Of Music, and possibly another. Sound Of Music makes sense, as we have Sister Act so the nuns outfits are already made.”
As well as Beauty And The Beast, UK Productions, which has its head office in Surrey and scenery and props department in Shropshire in addition to its Blackpool wardrobe department, will be producing 10 other pantos across the country.
Managing director Martin Dodd said: “Panto is our life, but obviously it ramps up at this time of year.
“Beauty And The Beast is exciting, as it’s nice to put something new out there - it’s a totally new script.
“They all get rewritten each year, to suit the venue and bring in up-to-date jokes, but working from something like Beauty we’re starting with a blank page.”
He works closely with the creative team to ensure all the elements come together to create theatrical magic.
“We know what the Beauty And The Beast story is, but we have free reign to create characters within that story,” Martin added.
“And we also keep in mind the talent we have; the fabulous Steve Royle and we can write around his strengths, and Hayley Kay is another local back with us this year so we can have a good fairy role to help keep the story moving along.
“I give Liz a script and creative thoughts for the show and with her design head on and some input with the set designer we decide the whole picture.
“Even after the 25 years we have been doing this, I still some times say ‘How many Liz?’ when she tells me the costumes needed.
“We sat there the other day, reading the script - for example, and the timing for the beast’s transformation is about three minutes.
“And you discover more things like that when you put it on the floor, and whether the whole thing works or not.”
With budgets in theatre - as in all things - getting ever tighter, the team at UK Productions are finding themselves busier than ever, providing cost effective pantos for venues.
“In days gone by, theatres would produce their own panto each year,” Martin explained. “But costs have gone up and up and that’s where we come in; we’re producing 11 pantos this year.
“It wouldn’t be financially viable to produce a panto in one theatre, but we can use and reuse the set and costumes and things over 10 years and spread the costs.
“It adds up to a few hundred thousand pounds by the time we pull a full new one together. We won’t get money back on Beauty And The Beast this year in Blackpool, but it will eventually come back.”
Beauty And The Beast opens at the Grand Theatre on Friday, December 7. It stars BBC Radio Lancashire’s Steve Royle and Hayley Kay as Louis La Plonk and Fairy Bon Bon, alongside EastEnders heart-throb Danny Walters as the Beast.
Also appearing will be Nick Wilton as the dame Polly La Plonk, Ben Harlow as bad guy Hugo Pompidou, Amelia Adams-Pearce as Bell, and Marcus Knibbs as Clement in his 15th year with UK Productions in various roles as kings, barons and squires.
The show will also feature dancers from the Barbara Jackson School Of Theatre Dance, choreographed by Katie Hill. Call 01253 290190 for tickets.