With hours to go before the opening night of Oliver! at Birmingham Hippodrome, Kat Keogh was given an exclusive look at the "wardrobe village" backstage.
It’s lunchtime at the Birmingham Hippodrome, but taking a break is not on anyone’s agenda today.
In a matter of hours, the curtain goes up on hit musical Oliver! and backstage is a hive of activity.
Every nook and cranny is crammed with Dickensian props, from wooden carts piled high with fruit and veg, to the giant pot filled with enough gruel to feed a dinner hall full of hungry orphans.
Hundreds of costumes hang pressed and ready, while row upon row of top hats sit on top of open wardrobes, looking like chimneys on the smoky London skyline.
“Its usually called the wardrobe village back here, but this time its more like wardrobe city,” says company manager Neil White, gesturing to the dozens of bonnets and boots lining the “quick-change” dressing area.
“We’ve been joking that backstage should have its own postcode.”
Putting on a show is always a challenge, but with touring one of Britain’s best-loved musicals comes the weight of expectation.
Eleven 45ft lorries were needed to transport the set, costumes and props from Manchester’s Palace Theatre to the Hippodrome, with crews working around the clock to transform the Hippodrome stage into a vision of Victorian London in just three days.
Healthy ticket sales prove Oliver! is still a firm favourite with theatre fans and families alike, with thousands of people snapping up seats for the production by West End impresario Cameron Mackintosh.
Neil said: “The pressure for us is that we know when the show finishes on a Saturday night in the previous venue, the following Tuesday night we have to give the show in a new venue.
“With a Cameron Mackintosh show, people expect a certain quality and a certain scale, and you know that a Cameron Mackintosh show is a big thing in any town.
“Cameron, as a producer, puts so much care and so much detail into a show which we have to replicate all the time.”
The 108-strong company includes a cast of 31 adults, teams of children, seven chaperones per show, five wig people and one dog handler.
Midland actor Neil Morrissey is playing the plum role of Fagin for the first three weeks of the production, before handing over to Hippodrome veteran Brian Conley on April 3.
Nancy will be played by rising star Samantha Banks until she leaves to film a big-screen version of Les Miserables. When she goes in April she will be replaced by The Bill’s Cat Simmons
Neil said it was the attention to detail that makes the show so special.
“Back here during the show there will be 125-130 people, which is beyond the scale of most touring shows.
“A lot of times when shows go on tour, things get cut back. They might have an orchestra of five, while we have an orchestra of 15. You have a big ensemble number that will have 12 people in, our ensemble numbers have 48.
“The brilliant thing for us is that we know we are absolutely giving people their money’s worth.”
* Oliver! runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome until on April 21. For tickets, call 0844 338 5000.
Artful Dodger Max has picked a pocket or two
Max Greisbach put in some early practice for his role as the Artful Dodger in Oliver!... he picked the pockets of his Midlands mates.
“I really wanted to play Dodger,” says the talented 14-year-old with a big smile, “and I did try to pick some of the pockets of my friends at school – although I didn’t always get away with it.”
Max joined Solihull Stagecoach when he was just four years old and has gone on to appear in the UK tours of Scrooge, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Mary Poppins.
He also played Gavroche in the 25th anniversary tour of Les Miserables.
The teen, who lists drama and music as his favourite subjects at school, has been touring the country with Oliver! and is one of three boys who take it in turns to play charming pick pocketing mastermind Dodger.
Max admits he sometimes misses home and his family when he is away, but says: “It’s worth it. I enjoy the show so much. It’s a lot of fun playing Dodger and I call my family every night at 10.30pm after the show when I’m on tour. They get out of bed to talk to me.”
Max has been keeping up with all his schoolwork on tour and passes the time backstage with his other young cast members playing board and card games.
He says his family have already seen the show ten times and will be coming to see it again during its run at Birmingham Hippodrome.
He’s also hoping his pet mini-Schnauzer Lola will get to meet the show’s four-legged star Bullseye.
“I want to arrange a puppy play day,” he laughs. “I think they would get on really well.”