The Forces of nature backstage that bring Red Rose Chain’s The Tempest to life at Jimmy’s Farm

Behind the scenes of Red Rose Chain's The Tempest. Photos: Wayne Savage

Behind the scenes of Red Rose Chain's The Tempest. Photos: Wayne Savage - Credit: Archant

Ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of Red Rose Chain’s Theatre in the Forest? Entertainment writer Wayne Savage decided to find out.

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Phot

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Photos: Bill Jackson - Credit: Archant

A metal barrel rolls perilously close to where I’m perched, followed by another; performer Kirsty Thorpe is worried she’s actually hit me.

She needn’t worry. Moments earlier I’d nearly fallen into full view of the audience when my chair, sat on a slight slope in my defence, tipped as I leaned to get a better view of the action.

I don’t learn. Barely a breath later I almost cause fellow cast-member Jack Parker to miss his cue. He scrambles to get his captain’s eyepatch on and join everybody else in a sea shanty while I ask how he keeps hydrated while running all over the place and taking toilet breaks.

The cast, which also includes Lawrence Russell, Rachael McCormick and Ed Day, have already performed earlier. Not that you’d know it from the enthusiastic way they’re waiting to greet and mingle with tonight’s audience.

The stage crew hard at work behind the scenes of Red Rose Chain's The Tempest. Photos: Wayne Savage

The stage crew hard at work behind the scenes of Red Rose Chain's The Tempest. Photos: Wayne Savage - Credit: Archant

Usually they don’t start until 4pm. Arriving separately, or in the Red Rose Chain minibus, it’s straight into an intensive hour-long warm-up while the team of volunteers finish cleaning up the site from the night before and stage manager Crystal Gayle and her team prep for the forthcoming show.

The ting of the microwave in the little shed backstage signals tea and then, around 5.30pm, it’s into costume so they’re ready to interact with picnic-laden guests from 6pm. There’s even time for a chorus of happy birthday for one audience member tonight.

The cast, firmly in character, have mixed with visitors for years. Back when I was a Theatre in the Forest novice I remember almost accidentally running down producer David Newborn as they greeted drivers.

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Very unshowbizzy - and a device now copied by many other companies - it’s a great way for the cast to shed remaining tension and helps the audience relax too, he says. The more you get to know them pre-show, the better rapport during it.

The stage crew hard at work behind the scenes of Red Rose Chain's The Tempest. Photos: Wayne Savage

The stage crew hard at work behind the scenes of Red Rose Chain's The Tempest. Photos: Wayne Savage - Credit: Archant

Day has been chatting to people from the off; disarmingly charming, silly and playful, by the time he’s on the stage at 7.30pm he’s talked to everyone.

With no mics and the sound of trains, occasional planes and attention- seeking peahens to compete with the warm-up is essential. The wrap-around seating puts heavy demands on the actors’ voices. With no back wall to stop it, sound can disappear into the trees. Control is everything.

The night I’m there they battle bravely on over the sound of Snow Patrol followed, I think, by Green Day which echoes through the trees from a wedding reception over the way.

Director Joanna Carrick talks of actors feeling lost when they first step into the forest surroundings of Jimmy’s Farm. The trick, says Thorpe, is don’t ever think what you’re doing is too big.

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Phot

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Photos: Bill Jackson - Credit: Archant

“You’ll be in the rehearsal room and do something and think that was totally hamming it up; but you get here and, backed by this vast dell of nature, however big you think you were you probably need to times it by four.”

Parker feels like the setting is almost the sixth actor; switching it to seventh when talk turns to the audience. I’m more concerned with the big snake he mentions was spotted a few nights earlier, holding his arms alarmingly far apart when I ask how big.

Not long after there’s a rustling from the bushes behind me, I almost tip my chair again in my haste to see what it is. I’m hoping it’s just the peahen which strode across stage during today’s matinee, ready for its encore. Relived, it’s Thorpe making her entrance. The two of us struggle with a fit of the giggles during her next quick change; our laughter getting dangerously loud after her attempt to fix the motion-activated light next to me results in it coming off the wooden post. It plummets to the ground into the darkness it’s meant to illuminate. I promise not to tell anybody.

Switching to the forest, it’s like they’re making a whole new show.

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Phot

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Photos: Bill Jackson - Credit: Archant

“It brings a whole new set of challenges,” says McCormick, who’s tossed an inplausibly large stack of pizza boxes to the floor as her “personal valet” Russell helps her cast off her old man’s hat and jacket and on with her tricksy sea-net cape. “It always feels exciting that first time because it’s like ‘okay, this is it now’.”

Russell, dressed like the love child of Fawlty Towers’ Manuel and Italian plumber Mario, seems to be having the time of his life as drunk butler Stephano alongside Day’s jester Trinculo. Guests are too, even as they’re getting hit by water from beer bottles.

“Argh, it’s in my ice cream,” I hear a girl sat in the new splash zone wail. The promise of a protective poncho wasn’t enough to tempt me to try it when I first saw the show, despite a laughing Carrick assuring me it’s not going to be like seeing killer whale Shamu, with you getting completely drenched. Watching from backstage I wish I’d been braver.

Getting wet is an occupational hazard with open-air theatre. It’s such a glorious night I can enjoy a chocolate ice-cream during the interval, while the backstage team hustle and bustle around me getting ready for the second half. The cast have retired to their shed-cum-green room for a well-deserved break from the controlled chaos.

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Phot

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Photos: Bill Jackson - Credit: Archant

Thorpe says you can tell a newbie when they ask what happens if it rains. When it does the cast carry on regardless, making it part and parcel of the fun. Theatre is the ultimate 4DX experience and this is The Tempest after all.

People tend to exagerate about how bad the weather is, adds Carrick. They want the badge “I was there and it was pouring”. Most years it hasn’t rained at all.

“That was the frustrating thing with King Lear,” grins Day, during a rare moment off stage. “There was that famous storm scene. When I did that it was like this is going to be great, when it rains it will be fantastic. On that final night it spit a little and I was like ‘it’s raining, it’s like a storm’.”

Everybody has a Theatre in the Forest story. My first show, I clapped so hard I spilt hot chocolate over myself. I didn’t realise until the house lights went up and my wife pointed and loudly inquired “what are those brown marks over your trousers?”

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Phot

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Photos: Bill Jackson - Credit: Archant

There was another when one of the cast forgot I was reporting from backstage.

“At least you were meant to be there, I’ve been backstage and a member of the audience has been there; or a peacock or one of the many cats comes on stage,” recalls a now composed Thorpe.

“There’s a girl who comes every year and she’s got a T-shirt from all the shows. She gets one every time but wears them all. Now they have to buy her a large even though she’s tiny. She’ll come up to you and go through all of them. It’s brilliant.”

The shenanigans, of which there are lots amid the mayhem, aren’t restricted to backstage.

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Phot

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Photos: Bill Jackson - Credit: Archant

Carrick remembers playing Lady Macbeth when she noticed an audience member starting to smoke.

“This doesn’t please me. I wasn’t in that scene so went round the back of the audience and whispered ‘you’re not allowed to smoke’.”

Sat behind one of several costume and prop storage areas, assorted coats and wigs are tantalisingly within my reach. Carrick’s words about resisting the temptation to help the cast by handing or taking things from them - “don’t” - ring in my ears.

Instead I sit back and listen to Thorpe and Day’s strange sounding ‘animal-off’. Watch Russell’s enjoyment as Thorpe has to kiss his feet, which he threatens to daub with whatever unpleasant thing he can find in the bushes as payback for her spitting at him during Richard III. Russell peeling off his bushy moustache without wincing and sticking it back on perfectly straight in the dark. Marvel at the amount of water Parker swigs without needing the loo more and so many costume changes it’s like being backstage at the most peculiar Paris Fashion Week ever. Thank God for Velcro.

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Phot

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Photos: Bill Jackson - Credit: Archant

With the last bow taken, the actors exit stage right while the props and costumes are locked away, the generators switched off and a quick tidy up of the site gets under way.

“Sometimes we might make it out for a drink after the show, but it’s usually about 10.30pm by then so, yeah, it’s back to Ipswich for a cup of tea and bed - but it’s amazing how quickly 4pm comes around and we’re back out here again,” smiles Newborn.

The Tempest, at Jimmy’s Farm, continues to August 28. More photos online.

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Phot

Red Rose Chain performThe Tempest, their 2016 Theatre in the Forest production at Jimmy's Farm. Photos: Bill Jackson - Credit: Archant

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