Peter Pan Behind The Scenes - Costume Design

The wardrobe design department is in overdrive as they hurriedly prepare for this year’s brand new pantomime Peter Pan which opens at Eastbourne’s Devonshire Park Theatre on 11 December.

The team is headed by Wardrobe Mistress and Creative Costume Designer Shelley Claridge and we caught up with Shelley as the team began the big sew!

Peter Pan is a brand new title for Eastbourne and so it requires a full set of new costumes. Shelley started designing in April, and got the first set for main cast members made in May ready for the official launch of the show; but the team don’t fully start the making of the costumes until just three weeks before it opens.

Eastbourne is renowned for producing traditional family pantomimes and for her costume designs Shelley draws inspiration by going back to source and watching the films and reading the books. Certain items are iconic such as Hook’s red coat and Peter’s green tunic and stay true to convention, but there are plenty of costumes which allow Shelley free creative reign, especially when it comes to the dame’s costumes.

Shelley says: “Of all the costumes I enjoy making the most it has to be the Dames outfits; they are unbelievably challenging but it’s a joy to see the creation on the page come to life in the fabric. Peter Pan is my all-time favourite pantomime and I am so pleased we are doing it this year, but it is a mammoth task for the wardrobe team, as there are more people, children and costumes than ever before!”

Shelley is assisted in her work by right-hand woman and long-term friend Sam Hart who has worked alongside Shelley for the past 11 years, making Peter Pan her 12th pantomime. Sam and Shelley have been friends since school and it is this close working relationship which creates such an effective team. Shelley said: “Sam can see a drawing that I’ve made, which might not even be fully detailed, but she can see exactly what I mean and can reproduce it beautifully.” The pair went to university together to study fashion and joined Eastbourne Theatres for work experience in 2004 on Cinderella and stayed!

The three weeks prior to the show opening is an intense and busy time for the team, with days regularly starting at 8.30am and ending at past 10pm. Sam and Shelley are supported by a team of talented seamstresses who work tirelessly to create the incredible costumes which are such a big part of Eastbourne’s famous pantomimes. Shelley and Sam work backstage throughout the pantomime run assisting the cast in costume changes and maintaining and cleaning the garments during the 5-week run.

Of course we had to ask what has been the biggest disaster that’s ever happened during a pantomime, Shelley said: “Probably the worst thing that’s happened was during a performance of Dick Whittington the cat’s costume broke, we had to very quickly sew her into the outfit during a break in her onstage appearance, then cut her out of it between performances and fix the zip!” And of her biggest challenges in the past; “Definitely being asked to create a sparkly pink space suit from scratch for Dame Martyn Knight in just 24 hours!”.

The wardrobe department take up residency in the Winter Garden Halls, a large rehearsal space behind the Devonshire Park Theatre three weeks before the show officially opens, they are joined in the second week by the cast who use the space to rehearse.

The sheer scale of the operation is huge there’s vast swathes of fabric, boxes over-spilling with boots and shoes and bags crammed with sequins and fancy trimmings scattered around the large open-plan make-area. A bank of sewing machines take up a wall and tables covered in patterns fill the cavernous space while the team are all focused on their own individual tasks. The detail that goes into the costumes, which are only seen from afar, is stunning, and it’s that attention to detail and high standards which are all part of a bigger theme with Eastbourne’s pantomimes. The walk-down costumes which the cast wear to take their bows in at the end of each show are worn for barely 5 minutes per performance, but they are all full costumes with precise intricate stitching and beadwork which is just stunning. Whilst these finale costumes might be just a small part of the show, it highlights just how importantly the team take every aspect of the show and it is this attention to detail which makes Eastbourne’s pantomime so very special.

Pantomime writer and director Chris Jordan says: “This glimpse behind the scenes of Peter Pan is just a tiny part of the whole pantomime package. The whole point of the creative teams involvement in every aspect of the production is that the audience, be they 5 years old or 95, are transported and immersed in the show. For those couple of hours in the theatre they are in Neverland and they don’t see the costumes or notice the lighting queues but they fully feel that they are part of the magic, which of course, they are - but without the hard work of Shelley and the whole creative team none of that magic would be possible.”