A costume department at Christmas: Backstage at Leeds Playhouse

The unmistakable sound of Wizzard's ubiquitous Christmas anthem is drifting out of a radio somewhere in the room, amid a sea of coats, wigs and sewing machines. I'm in the costume department at Leeds Playhouse which is a hive of activity at present. The small band of dressers and cutters are busy putting the finishing touches to the outfits for A Christmas Carol '“ this year's festive show.

Feature on Costume department for the production of Scrooge at The Leeds Playhouse..Rachel Hodgson sprays the chains of Marleys Ghost.12th November 2018 ..Picture by Simon Hulme
Feature on Costume department for the production of Scrooge at The Leeds Playhouse..Rachel Hodgson sprays the chains of Marleys Ghost.12th November 2018 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

If Christmas is a busy time for the actors and stage crew, it’s no less hectic in the costume department. Julie Ashworth has seen it all before, having worked here for the past 27 years. “I only came for three months originally,” she says, laughing. “I was a wardrobe assistant and then worked as a dresser on the shows after that.”

Julie is now head cutter and has been busy working on reindeer outfits (not part of the original Dickens tale), which have been incorporated into this production to add to the festive feel.

She has seen plenty of changes down the years. “We’re a lot smaller than we used to be – at one time we had double the number. When Jude Kelly [former artistic director] was here we had a lot of big costume shows and now it’s more of a mixture.”

Feature on Costume department for the production of Scrooge at The Leeds Playhouse..Emma Glover paint a shoe for the production12th November 2018 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

Julie runs the workroom and says Christmas is their busiest time of year. “We started work on this during the summer because of the volume of costumes,” she says.

“It’s interesting work, it’s creative and you’re never doing the same thing. Every day is a bit different and you get to work with different actors and designers.”

It’s been a momentous year for the Playhouse. As well as its name change from the West Yorkshire Playhouse, work started during the summer on the £15.8m redevelopment that will transform the building into one of the most impressive theatres in the country.

Rather than close, though, the Playhouse’s bosses decided, wisely in my opinion, to continue producing work which has been performed in the temporary pop-up theatre downstairs.

Feature on Costume department for the production of Scrooge at The Leeds Playhouse.Julie Ashworth a cutter with one of the costume.12th November 2018 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

The costume department, unlike many of the other teams, has stayed put and been largely unaffected by the building work going on 
around it.

Victoria Marzetti, who heads the department, says the biggest headache has been one of storage when a show is on in the pop-up theatre.

Normally the costumes would be stored in a proper changing area but with the revamp going on it means space is tight. “That’s been a bit of challenge at times but we’ve managed to make it work,” she says.

Just having one Christmas production to concentrate on has helped. “Normally when we have all the theatre spaces open we’re working on two or three things at a time, but this year we’ve gone from one to another, so it’s not as crazy as it usually is,” adds Victoria.

Even so, there’s still plenty of work to be done, whether it’s altering one of the many wigs, or tweaking Jacob Marley’s costume so the actor can slip in and out of his chains.

Victoria and her team have been beavering away behind the scenes, spending countless hours ensuring their handiwork appears seamlessly on the stage.

Theatre productions can stand or fall by the quality of the sets and costumes just as much as they can by the standard of acting. “The costumes help create the world of the show and if you get it wrong you soon know about it,” says Victoria.

There are around 60 costumes for this production alone. Some of them have been hired, the rest they either made themselves, or they borrowed and tweaked them from their extensive wardrobe store. “We’ve made the Mrs Fezziwig dresses and Scrooge’s coat and we’ve made the Father Christmas and reindeer outfits which are part of this particular show.”

The costume store comes in very handy and means the theatre can recycle outfits for different productions. “Every time we do a show the costumes go into the store. They might then get hired out to TV companies or other theatres and amateur groups, so it’s a great resource to have,” says Victoria.

The haberdashery store has every kind of button imaginable (and several you probably couldn’t), as well as all manner of silks, lace and satins in case of emergencies.

Work on the costumes for A Christmas Carol started when many people were still on their summer jollies, and Victoria is one of the four full-time workers whose numbers double in the run-up to Christmas.

Carrie Clark, a hair and make-up specialist, is one of the freelancers brought in to help out. She’s supervised more than 20 shows at the Playhouse over the past three years and enjoys the buzz of being part of a close-knit team.

“I’ve had Christmas songs playing on the radio to get me in the mood,” she tells me. And just as she says that, the smooth, dulcet tones of Bing Crosby singing White Christmas fill the air.

“I enjoy period work and I love Christmas so working on something like this is great fun for me... hard work, but fun,” she says, smiling.

A Christmas Carol runs at Leeds Playhouse until January 19. Call 0113 213 7700 or go to www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk