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What goes on behind the HMT curtains? We take you backstage during showtime in Aberdeen

The P&J got an exclusive look at Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch as the cast and crew prepared for opening night in Aberdeen.

Kirsty Hale is the head of wardrobe for Unfortunate: The untold tale of Ursula the sea witch. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson
Kirsty Hale is the head of wardrobe for Unfortunate: The untold tale of Ursula the sea witch. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

With only a few hours till curtains up, the Unfortunate cast and crew had their work cut out for them due to illnesses.

I went behind the scenes at His Majesty’s Theatre to find out all the pieces of the puzzle that need to come together to make a production work.

On this occasion, the touring cast of Unfortune: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch were in Aberdeen for five nights.

This unique musical is a parody version of The Little Mermaid, following Ursula’s version of what really happened all those years ago under the sea, featuring an original pop soundtrack and filthy humour.

With stars including Shawna Hamic, from Orange is the New Black, and River Medway, from Ru Paul’s Drag Race, the anticipation for a great opening night was high, with a large audience en route to fill the stalls.

The cast of Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch. Supplied by Aberdeen Performing Arts

The pressure was on…

I went along during the afternoon to explore backstage while the cast and crew prepared for their first performance in the Granite City.

On arrival, I was informed that several people had fallen ill and that performers were going on stage for parts they had never played before.

Amid this hectic scenario, actors had to learn lines and choreography, the hair team had to adjust wigs and the lighting and sound experts were adapting to the new venue.

The lighting desk at stage right. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson
Members of the cast blocking scenes together. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

People were floating around everywhere; some were in the auditorium talking through scenes with the stage manager while others were taking time to relax before they were required again to go over blocking during the tech rehearsal – working out where the actor needs to be during each scene.

In the meantime, I headed to the wardrobe department to take a peak at the costumes.

A look inside the wardrobe department

From a young age, Kirsty always knew she wanted to do something involving textiles and sewing, but didn’t really have any interest in fashion.

Growing up, she was intrigued by all things theatre and film which gave her the idea that she could make costumes for such productions — leading to her role as head of wardrobe for Unfortunate.

Kirsty Hale, head of wardrobe, showed off some of the characters’ costumes. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

Her job revolves around maintaining everyone’s costumes and taking charge of the dressing tracks which are quick changes within the show.

“I will come in and do the laundry call, so washing everything, ironing the shirts, making sure everything is in the right place for the show and fixing anything that broke from the night before,” says Kirsty.

“Then, during the show, we help the cast dress, help with quick changes, fix anything that goes wrong throughout and make sure everyone’s feeling comfortable.”

River Medway incorporates his drag when playing the part of Ariel in the production. Supplied by Aberdeen Performing Arts

For anyone who’s seen the show, you’ll know that the costumes are very bright and original, even more so when you see them lined up together on a clothes rail.

Kirsty mentioned that the designer tried to keep a lot of the original themes and ideas from the Little Mermaid movie — vaguely the 17th Century-esque kind of costumes but modernised and camped-up a bit.

The ensemble plays numerous characters throughout the show. Supplied by Aberdeen Performing Arts

She added: “I love the dressing room atmosphere and being backstage to help the show run as it is lively and every day’s different; like today, we’ve got so many covers on – who knows what’s going to happen?!”

She explained how being part of one production for a long time can become repetitive as it’s the same show every day, but with touring it mixes the experience up as every week they have a new city to explore so it keeps it fun.

There’s always a new venue, stage, wardrobe room… and washing machine to look forward to!

Of course, not every show runs as smoothly as others, and mistakes can happen, especially with props and costumes.

Luckily for Kirsty, the worst thing to happen thus far was the odd hat falling off or the cast forgetting to remove every item from their previous outfit before getting back on stage.

The sound desk controls the volume or dynamics of audio when the cast talks and sings. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

With such an important role behind the scenes, she knows the work that goes on that the audience doesn’t get to see.

“Everyone knows there’s lighting and sound, but I don’t think people realise that there’s literally someone putting the mics up and down as people talk on stage and so much effort goes into costumes, too,” says Kirsty.

“I just don’t think anyone realises how many people it takes for a production like this to be possible.”

Unfortunate is just as choreographed backstage as it is on stage…

After discovering the wardrobe rooms, I was lucky enough to bump into two of the lead actors during my time at the theatre, and they also think many unsung heroes have made the show so successful.

I stumbled across River Medway — who plays Ariel — running down the stairs, when he offered to take me up to his dressing room for a chat while he had five minutes to spare.

He has always loved musical theatre and gets to incorporate his drag into the show after years of thinking that they had to be kept quite separate – he either had to be a male in musical theatre or a woman as a drag queen – but now he gets to do both.

River Medway plays Ariel among other ensemble characters. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

Best known for his appearance on Ru Paul’s Drag Race season 3, River revealed that backstage is just as choreographed as on stage.

With the ensemble playing two to four characters each, the wigs, wardrobe and make-up teams are in high demand.

He said: “We’ve got such a good team of people that the audience never sees because they are always hidden away working very hard.

“They are the first ones in and the last ones out every night so they are definitely the best part of the show as we couldn’t do it without them.”

The wig department prepares the wigs for each of the characters.  Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

Venturing back downstairs, I was introduced to Thomas Lowe who plays King Triton in the musical. He too knows many important crew members who keep the show rolling.

“Freya Bramble, our stage manager, is a hardworking and respected member and is always busy, but she’s kind and patient, which are important qualities to have as someone in charge of such a big project,” says Thomas.

“There’s also Bernice, the deputy stage manager, who calls the show and all the cues from the side of the stage, and there’s the lighting guys, sound department and the band.”

Arlene McNaught is the musical director and supervisor for Unfortunate. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

The producers, writers and directors also come to tweak things here and there, even now when the cast is on tour — and as it’s a relatively new production, there are always modifications to be made.

How Thomas prepares for show days

Not only is the crew a vital aspect of any production, but the cast must also prepare for performing and look after themselves on tour.

Thomas emphasised how crucial it is to get plenty of sleep the night before a show and to stay fit and healthy by doing yoga, meditating and going to the gym.

Thomas Lowe plays King Triton. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

Living on the road can be difficult when trying to stick to a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle mixed with rehearsals and performances.

So, Thomas spoke to a personal trainer who set him the target of eating around 3,330 calories a day to maintain his “king dad weight” as he burns a lot while doing all these shows.

Thomas Lowe in action alongside co-star Shawna Hamic who plays Ursula. Supplied by Aberdeen Performing Arts

Singers also need to do appropriate vocal exercises and refrain from doing anything that could strain their vocal cords.

He said: “I just have to eat all the time and drink plenty of water while making sure I don’t do anything that could damage my voice, but that’s a question of stamina and doing the right warm ups, trying not to push my voice too much and pacing myself.”

Show time!

After spending only an hour with the cast and crew, I witnessed a smidge of the hard work that goes into this production every day.

Having a small cast and already requiring so many people backstage to make it work, you can only imagine what it would be like for a show with an even larger group of performers.

Without make-up artists, wig experts, costume designers, the band, the lighting crew and even the actors, there would be no show for audiences to see.

The wig room. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

Not every performance goes to plan, but the team overcomes every obstacle thrown their way.

“You just have to roll with the punches and embrace the whole process while understanding that one day you might have to come in and things will be slightly different, but you have to keep a positive attitude,” says Thomas.

And that is definitely what they did.

Next time you see a show at HMT, don’t just give a round of applause for the cast, but for the dedicated crew behind the scenes, too.