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Colchester Mercury’s panto set designer explains what it takes to create a larger-than-life world for Snow White

PUBLISHED: 12:12 08 December 2017

Gbemisola Ikumelo, James Dinsmore, Carli Norris - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs  Colchester Mercury - Photo: Robert Workman

Gbemisola Ikumelo, James Dinsmore, Carli Norris - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Colchester Mercury - Photo: Robert Workman

© Robert Workman

A great panto starts from the moment the audience enters the auditorium and starts looking at the set laid out before it. Arts editor Andrew Clarke talks to designer David Shields about the art of creating a larger-than-life panto world

Simon Pontin, Antony Stuart Hicks - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs  Colchester Mercury - Photo: Robert WorkmanSimon Pontin, Antony Stuart Hicks - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Colchester Mercury - Photo: Robert Workman

The art of creating a great panto set, is providing a believably make-believe world for the fairytale madness to happen in.

It’s a universe of heightened reality – it has to have one foot in the real world to provide audiences with an anchor but it also to be flexible enough to allow magic and mayhem to happen.

This is the conundrum faced by production designer David Shields each year and it’s a challenge he relishes. This year he’s working at the Colchester Mercury Theatre and has created a colourful world for Snow White and her diminutive chums to inhabit.

It’s a process which starts long before rehearsals get under way and has to be designed to give audiences a visual clue as to the direction the director wants to take the story.

Samuel Knight, Emily Stanghan - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs  Colchester Mercury - Photo: Robert WorkmanSamuel Knight, Emily Stanghan - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Colchester Mercury - Photo: Robert Workman

It’s a process which starts long before rehearsals get under way and has to be designed to give audiences a visual clue as to the direction the director wants to take the story.

In Colchester’s case this year, it has a pop-up picture book feel, with plenty of layers of scenery, giving great depth to the scenes. This image conscious feel is echoed by the fact that the evil queen’s magic mirror is housed in a hall of paintings.

“I suppose the starting point for everything is what’s contained in the script. I read the script and make a note of what’s required in terms of locations and setting and then I have a talk with the director just to get a steer on his thoughts and an idea of what business he has planned.

“I also have to plan the transitions, how we go from scene to scene, how physically we are going to achieve this, while at the same time creating a world where all this fun and mayhem can take place.”

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs  Colchester Mercury - Photo: Robert WorkmanSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs Colchester Mercury - Photo: Robert Workman

David says that the creation of a pantomime is very much a collaborative process which extends over very many months. “Daniel Buckroyd, the artistic director of The Mercury, wrote this pantomime, so he knew exactly what he wanted. We started talking in March and we continued off and on right up to the opening.

“In the beginning I just have a breakdown of the locations which comes from a skeleton of the script which is good enough for me to start drawing up the look of the show. I can make the initial designs and get the essentials to work and then we can add extra detail and extra layers as the production process progresses.”

He said that one of most enjoyable aspects of pantomime is coming up with designs that exaggerate reality. “What I love is when you can incorporate elements of musical theatre in there. I did Dick Whittington at the Mercury last year and that was very much like that and Snow White has a similar musical feel. It allows you to be more three-dimensional in what you can produce. It’s not all glitter, tabs and back cloths. There is more substance to it. As a designer it’s more interesting to have to come up with scenery that has a function within the scene, that actually has to work, rather just sitting at the back saying: ‘This is the palace garden’.”

“It’s great to give a pantomime a touch of reality. It’s still got to function in an abstract world but you can give it some texture which enhances the action.”

For Snow White, the biggest challenge was the creation of the mirror which was achieved with traditional stage-based special effects, a combination of production design and finely judged lighting.

“We get to have a lot of fun with the mirror. Daniel has written a different twist on the mirror which is really interesting. It’s not the traditional “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall”... there’s a lot of action with it, people stepping in and out of it and it’s been great fun, finding a way to make it work.

“I love trying to excite people’s imaginations. I love it when you can suggest something and the audience make the leap and go that extra mile in their heads – that’s the magic of theatre. You don’t have to build a complete palace with grounds, you can suggest it and the audience does the rest.”

Part of the production process also includes working with the costume department and coming up with designs for all the principal costumes. “It’s all got to look as if it’s part of the same world. Some costumes may be re-purposed from previous productions but the vast majority have to be made from scratch because of the look of the show and because of the wear and tear they will receive during the run.

“You have to consider the practical considerations like how comfortable certain fabrics are to wear, how easy they are to get in and out of for quick changes and how easy they are to launder in between shows. It’s not always the most glamorous decisions that are the most important.”

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, at the Colchester Mercury runs until January 14.

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