Toiling away in an old industrial unit in the heart of Birmingham, a team of designers is creating a rather unusual piece of art.
A giant and rather impressive-looking mouth, complete with 50ft tongue, has been carefully crafted by the group of set designers for the Birmingham Rep’s latest production, Little Shop of Horrors.
The open lips, which are larger than a person, will be licking their way round the Rep stage in the show next month.
A new production of the zany musical, which was made into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Steve Martin, has been created exclusively for the Birmingham theatre.
And the team behind its sets have been hard at work for weeks.
The designs have been created by Mark Walters, whose ideas are then passed on to the technical team to turn vision into reality.
And workshop supervisor Maggs Rees says they relish the challenge.
“Some designers, such as Mark, give us quite detailed designs but others are less precise,” says Maggs. “But for every design we get a little model which is on a 1:25 scale. They are really tiny, usually the size of a shoe box, but we then make it 25 times bigger.
“Our construction coordinator Oliver Shapley translates all of those models into technical drawings. Between us we then come up with the solutions to those challenges.”
With Little Shop of Horrors, the team has faced an additional challenge as, due to the refurbishment work at the theatre, it has moved out of its regular home to industrial units in Sparkbrook.
But there are advantages.
“We were closely involved in designing how we wanted these units to be, which is really useful, so we can install the machines in a particular order,” says Maggs, who came to The Rep a year ago.
“And we have also been involved in designing our new working space once the theatre re-opens.”
Little Shop of Horrors tells the story of florist Seymour Krelborn and his love for assistant Audrey. One day he discovers a strange new plant which he christens Audrey II. But Audrey II is no normal plant and as, its appetite for blood increases, Seymour’s hopes the future look increasingly precarious.
His quest is not helped by the fact that Audrey has another would-be suitor, the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello – hence the large mouth.
“It is a giant tongue with a mouth attached which will run on steel tracks and will run round the front of the stage – and hopefully frighten the audience,” laughs Maggs.
But this is only part of the story.
“The set is really imaginative and is going to look really colourful and dramatic,” she adds. “We have made all these flats which look like a New York skyline and they are all dark and it gives an impression of evening. And then it opens up into the florist’s shop which is all bright and colourful.
“We still have a lot of work to do as there are all kinds of tricks in the florists’ shop.”
The models for Audrey II, the giant, flesh-eating plant which grows in size throughout the show, are being created by a puppeteer in Nottingham. And Maggs and her team are looking forward to seeing the results.
“It starts as a small hand puppet and by the end I think the puppeteer is actually inside, it is so large,” she says.
“This show is a really big production for The Rep with a big budget so there is so much we can do. The Rep is one of the country’s biggest production houses and has some pretty ambitious ideas so it does some great shows and is a great place to work. I love my job and always look forward to coming in.”
Maggs’ background is in engineering but she always had an eye on moving into theatre.
“I did an engineering degree at Birmingham University and then did a carpentry apprenticeship building houses in Redditch,” she says.
“Then I got a job at the New Vic Theatre in Staffordshire and took a Masters in industrial design which was really helpful. And then I came here. I went for a number of interviews at the time but I really liked The Rep because of it being so committed to producing its own shows.
“But I have always been interested in theatre. My family was always keen on going to the theatre and I remember going to the New Vic when I was about nine or ten to see Sweeney Todd. They had a barber’s chair which tilted backwards and I couldn’t work out where the bodies went. Afterwards I went and asked them and they were really good and showed me how it worked.
“I think from that moment I was interested in doing something like that. All the time I have wanted to be an inventor – one of those people with curly white hair and a shed.”
The workshop team is made up of three permanent staff and a differing number of freelancers depending on the job in hand. It can range from a large-scale production or can be a smaller piece for the studio space The Door.
But the sad news is that much of the team’s hard work only has a temporary life span.
“The problem is that the most intricate pieces are usually the most specific so have been created for a particular show, so they can’t be recycled,” Maggs explains. “We try to sell on a show, to another theatre or for a tour, but if we can’t do that then many of the things we make end up in the skip.
“It is a shame but it is the way of this job because the large pieces just can’t be stored. Where could you keep an entire stage set? We try to recycle what we can for other productions and we recycle, sell or store props but you have to be realistic with it.”
But one piece the New Vic had kept was the very chair which first intrigued Maggs.
“One of the great things is being able to borrow from other theatres and they are all pretty good for that. So we got to use the chair when we did East is East at The Rep. It was lovely to actually be able to use it.”
Maggs and her team will be at work on Little Shop of Horrors until a couple of weeks before it opens next month and then begin their next production The Cherry Orchard which will feature comedian and actress Josie Lawrence.
“We are building the entire set for The Cherry Orchard and it will be something totally different.” says Maggs. “It is inside a decaying Russian mansion so we are creating something with paint flaking off the walls and plaster peeling off. But that is what we love about the job, each show is so different.”
Little Shop of Horrors, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, September 1-8, Details: 0121 236 4455 and www.birmingham-rep.co.uk