Laura Davis meets the designer behind the Everyman and Playhouse’s famous rock ’n’ roll pantomimes
CHRISTMAS started in March for set designer Dinah England, when she received a text message from the director of the Liverpool Playhouse panto inviting her to get involved in the show.
Jack and the Beanstalk: These Shoots Were Made for Walking is England’s fifth production with Mark Chadderton and his wife and co-writer Sarah Nixon, and she was thrilled to be asked again.
“I always think it would be really nice to pretend I have to check my diary but I never can because I’m so excited,” she reveals.
Further texts, revealing hints of the duo’s plans for the rock ’n’ roll panto, followed before England met with them in May for a proper discussion of how to transform their vividly imagined creation into reality.
“We sit and we drink lots of cups of tea and eat lots of cake and talk about how to make that happen,” she says.
“We make decisions based on how funny it’s going to look and how bright and sparkly and exciting it’ll be to watch. Mostly what we do is laugh and I think that’s why it works so well.”
From there, she returns home to “do lots of sketches and colouring in” and by June has a white card model of the basic structure as well as colour pictures.
Her finished designs, which include the costumes, are handed over in September ready to be built.
“This year the set is about three different levels – we have swamp lands and hillocks and we have the clouds and sky,” reveals England.
“Then it’s the silliness of the things we bring on. I don’t want to give away too much but we’ve got a milk float that turns into a rocket. Those ideas are initially the brainchild of Mark and Sarah and then I have the joyous task of colouring them in and making them real.”
Last year’s Cinderella: Mop in the Name of Love was the first time the well-loved Everyman panto was put on outside the Everyman, which was on its way to being demolished ready to be entirely rebuilt.
The challenge was to recreate the original atmosphere of the intimate Hope Street venue in a traditional proscenium arch theatre.
“The move was truly exciting and truly daunting because you’re trying to make it so that the people who’ve seen the Everyman panto and loved it aren’t going to be disappointed that it’s a new venue but we want to introduce new people as well,” says England.
The pressure to recreate the Everyman inside the Playhouse is off this year, thanks to the success of last year’s show. And it’s time for England and the rest of the team to take full advantage of the technical opportunities the older theatre has to offer.
“There’s shedloads more wing space,” she says, excitedly.
“In the Everyman what you could see was basically all there was. We used to wedge things on to the balcony at the back and the turnaround in the interval was enormous.
“There was one year when we had loads of different types of transport – buses and trains and a car – they just had to be shuffled around in the dark. It was bonkers.
“Also we’ve got flying at the Playhouse and it’s a joy to be able to make your fairy fly – and we’ve got a flying Wonder Woman this year.”
England became a designer to combine her passions for fine art and theatre. She studied theatre design at Nottingham Trent University before working as resident designer for the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, for eight years, where she created sets for everything from Romeo and Juliet to Dracula.
“The joy of being a theatre designer is the variety,” she says.
“I’m covered in glitter from May through to. . . well, it doesn’t really stop until I hoover it up after press night. It’s engrained in the kitchen floor – it’s ridiculous.
“I’m really lucky that I’ve had five years of this and I hope it continues but by the time I’ve brushed the glitter away I kind of want to do something grown-up and serious and then later on I’m back to wanting to do panto again.”
JACK and the Beanstalk is at the Liverpool Playhouse from tomorrow to January 19.