Larry! Dear Larry! Not the Olivier Awards

As the world of theatre gathers tonight to celebrate its finest, The Independent on Sunday asks its unsung heroes to take a bow

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The chaperone

Former West End performer Cherida Strallen, 57, mum of four daughters working in musical theatre, has been a chaperone on the musical Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace Theatre for six years.

"The boys all live in a house and are looked after by house parents. I usually pick them up at 1pm and take them to their rehearsal or class. They have to keep their skills up to scratch. Because they each only do two or three shows a week, they have to keep their stamina up. Then we go to the theatre.

"There are four Billys and four Michaels but it can vary because there can be some in training who haven't started doing the show yet.

"There are 30 ballet girls because there are three teams of 10, and three little Debbies. It's 19 children in the team on any one night and 15 go on stage.

"We are there for protection, safe-keeping, health and safety – someone to turn to as if your mother was there."

The laundress

Nicky Leach, 39, wardrobe manager for the bloodthirsty musical Sweeney Todd, which opened at the Adelphi Theatre last month, is one of three people who wash the cast's costumes.

"Towards the end of act one, Sweeney Todd starts to kill people, so fake blood starts to get on costumes. We need to get it out straightaway otherwise it will stain, so pretty much from the end of act one to the beginning of act two we are filling gardening trugs with boiling water.

"When we started the show we tried different types of detergent and, actually, we found it just needs to be soaked in hot water. The 'blood' is sugar – glucose-based – so it needs the hot water to dissolve it. Sometimes it's only the shirt that gets covered in blood. Sometimes it's everything down to the shoes.

"Act two is the worst: as soon as people can exit the stage then the clothes are stripped off [by three dressers] and that comes straight up to laundry on the third floor. They get soaked in the trugs and then they get transferred to a wash in the machine.

"We've got three washing machines, three tumble driers, a twin tub and a hot box for things that can't go in a tumble drier. We probably wash two dozen shirts every night and four three-piece suits.

"At the end of the night, wardrobe is a bit like a crime scene. There's blood everywhere."

The rain man

Rich Blacksell, 39, production manager of the musical Singin' in the Rain, which opened at the Palace Theatre in February, is in charge of making it rain on stage.

"We have a tank of 10,000 litres – 10 metric tonnes – in the pit. During Singin' in the Rain, we flood the stage with 4,500 litres and then we tip 2,500 litres as rain. We use seven tonnes of water each time they sing the song 'Singin' in the Rain' – once at the end of act one and once at the end of act two.

"All the water is recycled. It all drains back into the tank. It goes through a filter and then it's UV-treated and also chlorinated to keep it safe for both the performers and the audience. While the effect is pretty dramatic and spectacular, we'd actually have to run for 40 years to use the same amount of water as in an Olympic swimming pool.

"We had to sample about six or seven different types of floor before eventually importing something from America in order to find something that was grippy when it was wet and grippy when it was dry, and had the right sound for dancing on.

"The audience love it. At the interval they are like war veterans comparing wounds. They seem to delight in who has got the wettest. A lot of people specifically buy these seats to get Adam Cooper to splash them."

The musician

Bob Norris, 61, has played cello in the orchestra for Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre since the musical opened in 1986. He has played in about 10,500 performances.

"There are 27 members of the orchestra and a third are founder members. Obviously, it's repetitive but it still requires concentration. I use this analogy: if you are a bus driver you probably drive the same bus route out and back eight times a day, 40 times a week, 2,000 times a year. The time you stop concentrating on it is the time you run somebody over. The shows that can get boring are the ones with long dialogue; we are playing almost continually in Phantom.

"If you have been there for more than five years, you get a higher rate of holiday pay, a higher rate of redundancy if the show should end after the five-year period, so there are financial incentives to stay.

"There is very severe ageism in our profession. At 61, I would not be considered for a new show at all.

"I come from generations of professional musicians on both sides; it's in my blood. That's the way to earn a living, nothing else is considered."

The make-up artist

Alice Cridland, 26, is one of four make-up artists on Shrek The Musical at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

"The Shrek make-up work is an hour-and-a-half just for that one character. We had some guys from America come and teach us how to do it.

"We have to do a bald cap on Shrek to start with. It's basically a prosthetic hat that goes on top of his hair and is glued down because it stops all the sweat from running down from his hair into his face. Then we put a cowl over him – basically like a rubber balaclava which goes on his head. That's what his Shrek ears are attached to. We glue all that down and then start fitting the silicon face pieces: a chin and cheek piece; a forehead; a nose; a lip piece. That last lip piece is really the bit that makes him look like Shrek.

"We paint it all green and then we finely splatter him with brown paint so it looks like a freckled face. We try to make him look as human as possible."

The 'scream'

Oliver Herford, 34, now an English literature tutor at Oxford University, recorded the scream of a boy for The Woman in Black as a nine-year-old when his father, Robin, directed the first production in Scarborough. The spooky play, at the Fortune Theatre, has been in the West End since 1989.

"My parents had worked in the theatre in Scarborough since I was born, so it was an ordinary thing to be asked to do the recording for The Woman in Black. We spent a day recording all the effects, and almost all are still being used in the show. Dad has several voices that appear on the soundtrack, my mother is also in it and various other friends, actors who were there at the time.

"The local press assumed some awful thing had been done to me and I'd been shocked to produce the scream, but it was sheer cold-hearted professionalism. It's got a lot of echo, so it sounds a lot more impressive than it would have done otherwise.

"I was paid for it nominally. I didn't have the sense to hold out for a royalty payment: £10 in 1987 for a nine-year-old was considerably more than it is now. I never saw the play as a child. I was too scared. I didn't see it until I was at university."