How Cromer Pier Show’s set designer weathers all storms
It’s not just the numerous scene changes of Cromer’s 40-year-old variety show that have posed challenges to its longstanding designer Ian Westbrook, who tells Douglas McPherson how the perils of the pier have required inventive solutions
Watching your scenery float out to sea isn’t a setback most theatre designers will have to face. But it’s happened to Ian Westbrook, who has spent the last three decades designing the sets for the world’s last end-of-the-pier variety show. With no direct vehicular access, everything that goes into Cromer’s Pavilion Theatre has to be hand-barrowed the length of the wind-swept Edwardian pier, with the inevitability that the odd flat has been blown over the side.
In fact, such are the elemental hazards of working 150 metres off the Norfolk coast that it’s a wonder the Pavilion has survived to celebrate this year’s 40th anniversary of its 11-week summer season, the Cromer Pier Show. On one particularly dark and stormy night in 1993, a runaway barge smashed right through the 100-year-old pier, separating the theatre from the shore.
“We didn’t lose a season,” Westbrook reports. “The council built a metal footbridge – although that made it tricky getting the scenery in and out.”
Westbrook’s company, 3D Creations, designs and builds sets for some of the UK’s biggest pantomimes, including last Christmas’ production of Cinderella at the London Palladium. That was the first panto in the West End for 30 years and suitably lavish, with set pieces including flying a coach and horses out into the auditorium.
Over the years, Westbrook has also designed international shows by pop acts from Iron Maiden to the Spice Girls. But he retains a special fondness for the challenge of fitting a glitzy variety show into the 500-seat Cromer Pavilion. The stage is only 15ft deep and the headroom just 12ft. In fact, nothing upstage can be taller than 10ft if it’s to be seen from the gallery.
Counteracting the shallowness of the stage has made tricks of perspective a hallmark of Westbrook’s work there. The theatre even has a specially foreshortened baby grand piano that looks bigger than it really is.
One of Westbrook’s first suggestions, in 1986, when he began working as a scenic artist alongside the then resident designer Inigo Monk, was to curve the floor of the stage upwards by a foot where it meets the backdrop. “It’s a trick they use in television studios,” Westbrook explains. “It raises the horizon line of the stage and makes it look twice as deep.”
For a medieval scene, Westbrook built a banquet table that tapered in perspective from stage left to right. The food, plates and wine bottles all got progressively smaller – and so did the diners. The ‘distant’ kings and queens were played by children, with adult actors in the foreground.
“It looked enormous but it was only about 8ft long,” Westbrook recalls.
Another of his favourite sets was a biplane, seen from the front, with six dancers doing a tap routine on the wings. “As they moved their weight from side to side, the wings pitched up and down,” he says.
The variety-show format of the summer season and its Christmas counterpart typically alternates front-of-cloth acts such as a comedian, vocalist or magician, with production numbers ranging from song and dance routines to comedy sketches. Each show needs between 15 and 20 scenes, and because the summer season comprises two completely different shows, running on alternate weeks, Westbrook has to design up to 40 scenes in all.
When he first worked at the Pavilion in the 1980s, the facilities were basic. “At the back of the stage was a canvas cyclorama painted with a pale sky blue,” he recalls. “There were three bars on winches for curtains, three lighting tracks and, at the front of the stage, some footlights that gave you the very old-fashioned 1920s and 1930s feel of being lit from the foot upwards. That’s really all there was.”
To facilitate the many scene changes a variety show demanded, Westbrook and Monk installed in the ceiling a series of tracks, based on Henderson garage door tracks, that scenery flats slide along.
“We have six downstage and eight upstage. But there’s never enough hanging space so, in the interval, the stage crew gets up on ladders and changes them over.”
The stage originally had no wing space, so they built a false proscenium arch for the flats to hang behind.
“When I started, we had a resident stage manager and six crew, so we could have a lot more three-dimensional sets and things like staircases that dismantled. Now we have a crew of two and one of them is calling the show as well as hanging the scenery, so I have to take that into consideration,” says Westbrook. “Three-dimensional pieces are always small enough for one person to pick up.”
Another consideration is that nothing can be wider than 7ft, or it wouldn’t go through the doors.
“There’s no scenery door,” Westbrook explains. “Everything goes through the fire doors into the auditorium and then on to the stage.”
That the fire doors open on to a narrow walkway at the side of the pier creates its own problems.
“We made a scenery barrow especially to fit the pier, but it’s still tight and we occasionally get things stuck between the railings of the pier and the pier buildings.”
Backstage used to be a lifeboat station – almost literally. Before a new station was built on a separate platform at the back of the pier, the original boat shed was part of the theatre building. Violent vibrations occurred when a lifeboat was launched.
“One night we were doing a ballet scene with all the dancers en pointe, when the lifeboat crew came thundering down the pier at the sides of the theatre,” Westbrook recalls with a chuckle. “The boat was launched and the stage shook so much that the dancers toppled like skittles in a bowling alley.”
Having studied theatre design at Nottingham Trent University, Westbrook began his career at Theatre Royal Plymouth, before moving to Norwich Theatre Royal, where he worked as a scenic artist alongside Monk, not only in the Theatre Royal and Cromer Pavilion but also the Gorleston Pavilion, near Great Yarmouth.
“We worked from the Norwich Theatre Royal workshops, now the Garage Studio Space. It was a large, dirty, cold, dark, miserable place to work,” recalls Westbrook, who took over as designer when Monk retired shortly afterwards.
Westbrook started his own company, 3D Creations, with “myself, a small van and some brushes” in 1985. Today, the company’s spacious premises in Gorleston-on-Sea are a veritable Santa’s workshop, with painting, carpentry, metal work and fibre-glass facilities full of up to 24 staff beavering away on colourful pantomime sets throughout the year.
Alongside his management and administrative duties, Westbrook still spends half his time designing and at least 10% of his time getting his hands dirty in the workshop.
He gives the following advice to anyone interested in a career in theatre design: “You’ve got to be a Jack of all trades. You need a huge knowledge of history, construction, engineering, painting, sculpting, carpentry, resins and plastics. To be a specialist in any one area limits you a lot.”
For the Cromer Pier Show’s 40th anniversary, Westbrook has built a series of sets to reflect the different decades from the 1970s to the present. Plus, of course, a giant birthday cake from which the cast will emerge.
The Cromer Pier Show runs from June 24 until September 9