By Martin Tyrrell
Here is just one of probably hundreds of similar stories around the country concerning amateur theatre societies that are cancelling productions due to the escalating health crisis.
While none of us would ever compare people’s lives with a trip to the theatre, the fact remains that St. Nicolas Players’ production of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van saw Richard Evenden’s design and the society’s entire set-building crew put their hearts and souls into the project.
We are all familiar with Alan Bennett’s funny, touching and heart-warming tale of The Lady in the Van, about the elderly lady who came to reside, complete with Commer van, in the driveway of the playwright’s Camden house in the 1970s.
When Spalding’s St. Nicolas Players decided to stage the play, director Rob Nicholls had ambitious ideas for the set design. He wanted the van to be life-sized, and as realistic as possible. Rob specified fully working headlights and indicators, as well as interior lighting. He also wanted the van to revolve on its axis, so that the reverse, showing the garden wall, would present to the audience.
Luckily, the society’s set-building crew were no strangers to a challenge. In the past, they have produced engineering marvels such as the pier from One Man, Two Guvnors, the house and garden from The Darling Buds of May, the church and village hall from The Vicar of Dibley, and dozens of others.
The design of the van was the brainchild of Richard Evenden, a retired agricultural engineer and agronomist, who collected photographs of Commer vans from the period, and began to plan out what was to be the most complex set the society had ever produced. Starting with the revolving floor, they built a platform from Stirling board measuring 16ft x 12ft, and cut out a circular platform, 10ft in diameter, supported by thirty-seven castors to ensure a smooth rotation. It was important that the completed van could be rotated smoothly by two crew members.
Then they began work on the van itself. Starting with a base of 9mm plywood, attached to the revolve, they constructed it in five sections, so that it could be easily broken down for transportation to the theatre. The aim was to make sure that the vehicle, and its attaching wall flats, could all fit into a Luton-type van.
There was a further requirement; the van had to change colour, as Miss Bennett decides to paint it yellow, so there had to be a method devised to allow that to happen nightly without the set crew having to repaint at the end of each performance.
Finally, the rest of the set, Bennett’s sitting-room and garden, had also to be built, with slidable doors and gates, to match the director’s exacting requirements.
Construction began in November 2019, with Richard basing his design on pictures of an old British Telecom service van from the Seventies. Determined to be authentic, he searched around to find a company that could source the correct light clusters and headlights, as well as the distinctive steering column and seat. The van’s rounded edges were achieved by a mix of precisely made wooden fillets, smoothed off with body filler prior to sanding and painting. Every bit of the carpentry was designed from scratch as no plans were available to help them.
“The building process was somewhat evolutionary,” explained Richard. “We had a good idea of what we wanted to achieve, but the way we got there represented a steep learning curve, which involved a lot of learning on the job!” He likened the process of creating the van outline to his memory as a boy, of building balsa wood gliders covered in doped tissue. “It must be in the genes,” joked Richard. “My maternal grandparents both worked for Thomas Sopwith, the designer of the famous Camel WWI fighter aircraft!”
The vehicle skin was finally smoothed off with a lightweight flexible boarding called Foamex, which was kindly donated by an international exhibition company, based locally.
The construction team of six (which included Richard’s wife, Arline, the Chair of the society, and no mean set builder herself!) worked five mornings a week in the society’s set-build and rehearsal space. Many mornings saw temperatures well below freezing, but the building is so huge and expensive to heat, that they worked in heavy coats and thermal wear.
Of course, for every onstage performer, there are at least three people working hard behind the scenes, either during the performances, or for many weeks prior to opening night. However, it is saddening to note that none of the St. Nicolas Players set building team are aged under fifty (with many over retirement age). Their incredible talents are not being passed on to the next generation and are, therefore, in real danger of being lost forever. In the past, the Spalding societies have trained set builders, some of whom have gone on to build sets in the West End but, in recent years, the younger people which have joined the society prefer to act rather than take these vital backstage roles.
Finally, on a rainy Lincolnshire morning, the now completed set was carefully disassembled, put into lorries and transported to the theatre where, after two days of intense work to reconstruct it, Alan Bennett’s home, complete with Miss Shepherd’s van, stood resplendent on the stage of the South Holland Centre.
Then the cruellest blow of all, when the council took the decision, on the actual day of the dress rehearsal, to listen to the government advice on Coronavirus and subsequently close the theatre until further notice.
After months of hard work, nobody would see the finished set; nobody would see this amazing play as it unfolds before them. There are no words to adequately describe the disappointment of the cast and crew at this blow, but St. Nicolas Players are no different to hundreds of societies that have found themselves in similar circumstances. Discussions are underway to look at future schedules, in the hopes that the cast can stay motivated (and together), and they hope that The Lady in the Van will debut onto the Spalding stage later in the year and this magnificent piece of theatrical set construction can be given the appreciation it richly deserves.
More information at: www.stnicolasplayers.co.uk
Has your society gone the extra mile in an aspect of a production, perhaps going One Step Beyond! in order to achieve the impossible?
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