He started out creating fireballs, now he’s designed a moving ice-cream van for Mother Courage. Royal Exchange props expert Andy Bubble tells Chris Bartlett why the in-the-round space requires an impact you just can’t fake
For props man Andy Bubble, when it comes to the Royal Exchange’s latest production, Mother Courage and Her Children, the car is very much the star. The non-human star, that is, as the titular matriarch in the Manchester theatre’s Brecht revival is played by former Coronation Street favourite – and Royal Exchange regular – Julie Hesmondhalgh.
With the action shifted from the 17th-century battlefields of the Thirty Years’ War to a modern-day dystopian Europe, Mother Courage’s iconic cart has been replaced in this staging by a clapped-out van.
Which is where Telford-born Bubble, the Royal Exchange’s deputy head of props and settings, and his team come in. They needed to modify the van so Hesmondhalgh could pull it on and off stage, and adapt it for the 12 locations during the play, starting in the guise of an ice-cream van.
He clearly enjoyed the process of bringing the old banger to the Manchester stage, adding it was “hard not to be” a fan of the prop. “Everything revolves around that van. I could keep talking about it all day.”
Not that it’s been easy. While creating the play’s different environments was “just a case of picking your aesthetic and designing it”, the hardest thing was making the van fit for purpose. “It’s so central to the production and so much of the action takes place around it,” says Bubble in his office at the Exchange’s workshop in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.
“But the director [Amy Hodge] had no chance of being able to block the action without physically having the vehicle in rehearsals. We’ve got to be able to take it into rehearsals so we know what it’s able to do.”
The ice-cream adornments, like the van – actually two 1996 Nissan Vanette Cargos – are real. Bubble bought them from an Italian family in Kettering for £475. Creating a reproduction would have been costly and time-consuming, so it was easier to source and adapt the real thing.
‘Our audience is so close they’ll be able to touch the van. And you get something from that that’s almost impossible to produce by fabricating it’
This authenticity, he says, is especially important for the Exchange’s intimate, in-the-round space. “Our audience is so close they’ll be able to touch it. And you get something from that that’s almost impossible to produce by fabricating it.”
Bubble is enthusiastic about working in the props team, and he says what he and his team produce is clearly valued. As always, they were involved right from the start of the design process, when designer Joanna Scotcher presented her box models and Bubble, alongside head of props Neil Gidley, started thinking about what was – and wasn’t – possible.
“My job is to bring that design aspect into the world of the practical,” Bubble says. “You never want to say no, so it’s more a case of pointing out what needs to happen to make it work. We always say the only three restrictions are time, money and the laws of physics.”
Each production has a five-week build period and 10 days of tech rehearsals with cast and crew. But for more complex creations, the actors are involved earlier in the process. For example, Hesmondhalgh came to the workshop at the start of the year to make sure she was physically able to pull the van.
“If an actor’s going to have to have a lot of interaction with a prop, it’s better to get them used to it as soon as possible, even with an early prototype,” Bubble says. “Then they’ve got an opportunity to feed back to you and have input. If you just give an actor something quite complicated in tech week for the first time it can freak them out, quite rightly, as they’ve got so much other stuff on their minds.”
It’s this level of symbiosis between creative, design and technical teams, Bubble believes, that allows the Exchange to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National in terms of the scale, ambition and quality of its output.
“It used to be that every regional theatre had its own workshop but that’s just not the case any more,” he laments. “And if you haven’t got a dedicated team that absolutely understands that space and is able to respond in the rehearsal room, then to have that back-and-forth and go through the process that we did with Mother Courage is almost impossible.
“Once you start going down that road of hiring things in and getting your scenery built commercially you lose that flexibility,” he adds. “Being connected into the rehearsal process is becoming more and more unusual. What we’re able to do makes us feel bigger than most people’s idea of what a regional theatre is.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Newspaper round aged 13.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Just before I joined the Royal Exchange, I worked with a friend on a graduate production of The Dumb Waiter at the Arden Theatre in Didsbury. I built and operated the actual dumb waiter.
What is your next job?
Me and [head of props and settings] Neil Gidley usually alternate the main-house shows, but unusually I’m doing two on the trot this year. So next up after Mother Courage is West Side Story. I’m really excited about its production design.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That there was this world called ‘theatre’ with all these interesting jobs in it. When I was at school, nobody ever mentioned it. I loved engineering, so if someone had said there’s work in theatre production I would have been really into that, as I kind of stumbled into it later.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
I don’t think I would ever have been able to do what I do now if it wasn’t for my dad. He completely rebuilt our house from top to bottom, so if I hadn’t grown up with him always making stuff around me then I don’t think I would have had it in me.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
None whatsoever. You will regularly hear me whistling on stage. It’s like I’m wilfully non-superstitious.
Bubble got the theatre bug from watching “everything that the Exchange did” while it relocated to Upper Campfield Market after the explosion of an IRA bomb forced the theatre to vacate its St Ann’s Square site temporarily in 1996.
Bubble remembers “virtually sitting on the set” of one show and marvelling at the authenticity of its fake flagstones. “That was the beginning of me realising that theatre was what I wanted to do.”
Before that, Bubble studied sociology at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University) and stayed in the city to run a clothing company before realising that business was not for him and, building on a childhood love of engineering, turning his hand to fitting out shops instead.
He was working as a freelance carpenter when a call to the Exchange’s then head of construction Alan Fell – now the RSC’s head of props – got him a meeting with technical manager Pete Goodwin and a spot on the crew of Martin Yesterday, a production that began Bubble’s 20-year association with the Exchange.
But from the start he had his eye on working in the construction department, which he joined after “hanging around the same places and getting my face seen”. Nine years ago he was promoted to his current position, specialising in the engineering side of staging and the venue’s now trademark “great big revolves”.
There aren’t too many doors used in sets on the open Royal Exchange stage, but Bubble counts one door as a particular triumph for the props department.
The 2009 play Haunted, starring Brenda Blethyn, featured a door that had to open and close by itself, and Bubble is particularly proud about how well it worked. “So we do occasionally get doors at the Royal Exchange,” he chuckles. “It’s not exclusively a door-free zone. If you want one you can have one.”
Before that was a literal baptism of fire, early in his career, with an explosive production of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. “There was a huge fire with gas-powered flames shooting up a telegraph pole and creating this massive fireball,” Bubble recalls of the show’s big set piece. “It horrifies me now and there’s no way we could do it today.”
But as incredible as that scene was, Bubble says, it was the sequence afterwards that made the biggest impression. “This scene, with the characters going back into the house, created with nothing more than handheld torches and a bit of dry ice, had much more dramatic impact than this technically complex sequence before it that had taken weeks of work to achieve.”
The experience taught him a valuable lesson. “Sometimes really technically difficult things work amazingly, but you can also get blindsided by them. There’s never one particular way of doing something. There are always a dozen different approaches.”
Born: 1969, Telford
Landmark productions (all at Manchester’s Royal Exchange):
• The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (2004)
• The Comedy of Errors (2010)
• To Kill a Mockingbird (2013)
• Death of a Salesman (2018)