Perchance to dream... of David Tennant's slippers

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A Slice of Britain: Stage doublets, corsets, frocks and toppers are up for grabs in the latest costume sale at the RSC... and the bargain-hunters enter right on cue

It is eight o'clock in the morning, and Jane Hewson has been sitting next to the same stretch of Stratford-upon-Avon road since midnight. She is on a serious mission and will stay as long as it takes: there will be no going home without a pair of David Tennant's slippers.

It is four years since the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) last held a costume sale, and the 50-year-old youth theatre worker is leaving absolutely nothing to chance. Behind her are the company's rehearsal rooms, where about 10,000 costumes are arrayed: more than 1,000 pairs of shoes, 500 shirts and 300 hats. The doors don't open until 10am, but to have any chance of the best spoils you have to arrive in the small hours.

Dressed in a thick hat and two pairs of gloves, and armed with a foldaway chair and a sleeping bag, Mrs Hewson waited alone for nearly five hours before a queue began to form behind her.

"I got here and thought, 'Where's the queue?'. I thought I was in the wrong place. No one else turned up till about 4.30. I think it's been worth it though – at least I'm first. Hopefully I can get David Tennant's slippers and a waistcoat worn by Charles Dance."

She runs the X-centricity youth theatre group in Ross-on-Wye, and wants to acquire clothes worn by big-name actors, some as a reward for those in leading roles when the group stages a Shakespeare production later in the year. The rest she plans to auction, raising money for future productions. Her wish-list includes Dance's waistcoat, worn in As You Like It, and Tennant's footwear from his highly acclaimed performance in the title role of Hamlet, three years ago.

Twenty minutes before the sale begins, a queue of more than 1,000 people snakes far down the road. The only queue to rival it in town is outside the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust around the corner, where a stream of Japanese tourists waits for the doors to open, cameras at the ready.

At 10am on the dot, the doors open, and the first 200 are allowed into the long corridor leading to the sale. Half walking, half trotting, the throng surges away from the archive room, where celebrity items are siphoned off, making for two large rehearsal rooms resembling school halls. In these are the chain mail, gowns, crowns and doublets of more than two decades of performance. The excited crowd falls on rail after rail of flamboyant costumes.

Mrs Hewson has but one thing in her sights. "I've got the slippers!" she squeals, emerging from the archive room holding aloft a pair of supremely average-looking specimens in a plastic bag. These were not exactly part of Tennant's costume when he starred in the company's 2008 production of Hamlet, more the place he put his sweaty feet between scenes. At £50 they seem quite steep, considering they bear a remarkable resemblance to the kind you get free in hotels.

Teaming up with her friend to get around a two-pieces-per-person limit on high-value items, she has gathered up Sir Ian McKellen's shirt, worn in The Seagull, Tim Pigott-Smith's jacket from Women Beware Women and the Charles Dance waistcoat, all for about £60 each.

David Grilly, 51, and Jan Burns, 45, from the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival drove through the night from Liverpool to be here at 5.30am, so they could scoop up cheap costumes and props for this summer's festival. They are clutching six enormous bin bags of costumes and wait nervously for the total to be totted up on a calculator. Unlike the "celebrity" items, the only limit to what you buy is how much you can carry. Propping up a bag of doublets and breeches, Ms Burns's hands shake as she gets out her credit card to settle the final tally of more than £700.

"I guess a lot of people are here to flog things on eBay, but we've got eight productions this year, so we need to get kitted out," she explains.

If there are cynics here looking to make a quick sale on eBay, they are keeping a low profile. Most seem more dedicated to dressing up than making money: some so much so that they appear to be already in costume. John Osbourne, 50, is sporting a floor-length leather coat, a silver-topped cane and a Fu Manchu moustache big enough to sustain its own ecosystem. He travelled up from Tamworth and at 10.30am is near the back of the queue, facing a long wait.

"I'm into steam punk, so I've come for Victorian clothes," he explains. "My wish list is a silk top hat and a fly-fronted long overcoat you can wear over a frock coat."

As stock levels dwindle, the scenes inside begin to get more feral. With no changing rooms, one woman strips to her bra in the corner to try on a series of corsets and medieval frocks; others mutter darkly as they are beaten to prizes.

By 11.30am, the rooms are already looking bare. Along the corridor, a line of people is leaning against the wall trying to keep enormous piles of dresses and chain mail aloft.

With her own bundle of finery, Jane Hewson is next to them, catching her breath. "There have been some very sharp elbows," she says, standing guard over her hoard. "I gathered what I wanted on a rail and as soon as I looked away there was someone trying to take something."

Outside, the moustached Mr Osbourne is still separated from the door by at least 100 people. In the cut-throat world of costume-hunting he's likely to be leaving empty-handed. Eyeing a group leaving with bin bags, he murmurs: "I doubt there'll be much hope of finding that silk top hat now."

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