We go backstage at the Colchester Mercury’s Spamalot

John Brannoch, Matthew Pennington & Gleanne Purcell-Brown in Spamalot at the Colchester Mercury.. Pi

John Brannoch, Matthew Pennington & Gleanne Purcell-Brown in Spamalot at the Colchester Mercury.. Picture: ROBERT DAY - Credit: Archant

Monty Python’s Spamalot is currently running at the Colchester Mercury. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to the production design team of Sara Perks and Corinna Vincent about the practicalities of mounting a large-scale musical

Wardrobe team Ruth Metcalf and Jess Fisher working on chain mail helemts for Spamalot. Picture: CONT

Wardrobe team Ruth Metcalf and Jess Fisher working on chain mail helemts for Spamalot. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

In house productions at the Mercury Theatre have long been badged up as Made In Colchester. Many people believe that merely refers to the fact that the Mercury is producing the show and the rehearsals are taking place at the theatre.

But, it is also means that sets and costumes are also being produced in-house meaning a show like Spamalot really is Made in Colchester.

We spoke to Spamalot designer Sara Perks and costume supervisor Corinna Vincent about the process of re-creating a West End show in a regional theatre

Sarah Harlington in Spamalot at the Colchester Mercury.. Picture: ROBERT DAY

Sarah Harlington in Spamalot at the Colchester Mercury.. Picture: ROBERT DAY - Credit: Archant

What excites you about working on a show like Spamalot?


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SARA: What can I say? It is Monty Python – who wouldn’t be excited? It is great to be putting out this large production, and putting it on tour.

Dale Superville & Bob Harms in Spamalot at the Colchester Mercury.. Picture: ROBERT DAY

Dale Superville & Bob Harms in Spamalot at the Colchester Mercury.. Picture: ROBERT DAY - Credit: Archant

CORINNA: Spamalot has everything for costume: comedy, dance, history, technical costumes and trick costumes. I love the costume diversity of this show; the challenge is the scale of it (60-70 different costumes) and the fact they are nearly all being made.

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Once you have Sara’s designs what is the process you go through to bring the costumes from the page and on to the stage?

CORINNA: The first thing I do is read and analyse the script; then the designer and I sit down and discuss the costumes in detail thinking about practicalities like quick changes, laundry and maintenance; how the trick costumes will work. We also discuss the design, and how we are going to achieve it within the available resources.

The next stage is fabric shopping: In addition to shopping in Colchester, we will spend three full days shopping in London. 2-3 weeks online shopping for items like shoes, boots and accessories (although this is ongoing throughout the rehearsal period as well). Once we have fabric and actors measurements we draft all our own patterns from the individual designs to each actors sizes, using historical references as a guide. Then we make the costumes; fit them on the actors; alter them as required. Finally we add decorations, trim and embellishments before breaking down the costumes (that is making them look old, dirty and ragged as the design specifies). We are even hand painting the heraldry on the knights’ tabards.

Once all that is achieved, they finally get to be worn on stage… Then they need laundering and repairing (even the dirty and ragged ones!!!) So, they look as the designer intended.

What materials are you using for the costumes and how do you go about sourcing them?

CORINNA: Everything from Silk to sequins. Silk is a great fabric for making period poor costumes as the weave is often quiet raw and uneven looking. It is also good to dye. But also cotton, linen, wool and some special fabrics.

Of course we have our knights who will be wearing armour and mail… Now we are not going to make our actors wear heavy steel, so we are looking at specialist materials that we can make look like armour that is much lighter. Our mail is real though, but made of aluminium, so it is actually lighter than many wools!

There are a number of characters in the show with many actors playing multiple roles, which will mean some very quick costume changes, are there any additional considerations you have to take when designing and making the costumes?

SARA: When I design a big musical, I don’t start doing drawings until I know what most of those multiple roles are. Because what I have to do to get the show to work is design a ‘track’ for an actor – i.e. all their costumes, which characters they are playing when and in what order. I quite often am designing a sequence of layers for actors, with some costumes underdressed and some overdressed because quick changes are so fast. We can also make economic decisions like using the same pair of medieval ‘trews’ all the way through for an actor but with different tunics, tabards and gowns.

You have worked together a lot in the past on various shows, what makes a successful partnership between the designer and the wardrobe team?

SARA: A good sense of humour! And respect for each other’s aims and goals. My primary aim is to make the show to look amazing – and whilst Corinna wants this too she has to get it in on budget and in time. She and the wardrobe mistress have to think about longevity of costumes and wear and tear – so we all have to work together to make the best decisions possible in the circumstances presented. Having a common language from past working experience is incredibly useful and saves an enormous amount of time.

What can audiences expect from this production of Spamalot that makes it different to the original?

CORINNA: It is much more of a musical than the film was, so more singing and dancing, more theatrical sparkle.

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