Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Grand day out

(I have not yet found my trip report to the Plaza mentioned in a previous post. However, this is an ABTT write-up of a Blackpool trip held back in 2003. The ABTT is the Association of British Theatre Technicians, an organisation I have recently relinquished membership of as I am in too many societies!)

ABTT North had organised a Blackpool visit for Thursday 3rd of July, starting at 11am at Funny Girls, the former Odeon in Dickson Road. Unfortunately, a rescheduled rehearsal meant that access to the venue was not possible, however Neil Bohanna, the ABTT North Chairman, had pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to arrange a last-minute visit to the Pleasure Beach.

Thirty minutes later, the party re-assembled outside the casino building after having used cars, buses or trams (but no sign of the donkeys!) where we were met by two of the Stageworks staff who whisked us round to the Globe.

(This report is a little cursory on technical detail, as it has been recalled from memory rather than from notes.)

The Globe is a large tent, constructed in a way as to be mostly column free. This was originally leased to Peter Jay as a Circus venue and eventually taken on by Stageworks, Blackpool Pleasure Beach's Production Company headed up by Amanda Thompson. (The park is still privately owned by the Thompson family).

The Technical Director explained something about what the show was about. Eclipse is a performance using Circus skills but more collectively coherent than a regular circus and with thematic elements to pull it together as an experience rather than just an event. Think Cirque Du Soleil & you will get the idea, although BPB are keen to point out that the resemblance is only superficial. (Well, they would say that, wouldn't they, as Christine Keeler once said!) The star of the show is Vladimir, a sultry hunk of a bloke reminiscent of Disney's animated Tarzan, even down to a fur loincloth. His coup de grace is to wrap straps around his wrists and to launch himself out into the audience, swooping in graceful circles.

The tent seats about a thousand and is an end stage configuration with a circular thrust. There are large numbers of conventional and moving lights, although they are as high up and far back as possible to maximise the space for aerial ballet. The rear of the multi-level set has numerous entrances within the scenic elements, including a large ramp that lifts right up to allow the setting of a full size trampoline.

We were shown a number of lighting states as well as two impressive special effects- a water curtain that encircled most of the thrust , followed by pulsating balls of flame also around the front of the stage. Jack Watling (who was sat in the front row) commented that he was worried about losing his eyebrows!

BPB is no stranger to flame effects, the nearby Valhalla water ride needed a larger mains feed to provide enough gas for the final scenes which provide welcome warmth after the soaking you get.

We then moved on to the Horseshoe bar, home of the Mystique illusion cabaret show. Whilst not actually horseshoe shaped, it takes up nearly a third of the circular Casino building on two levels and has a pronounced curve. The stage is comparatively small (& the original stage little more than an alcove beyond) but there is a large square forestage lift where most of the action happens (due to sightlines). There are less moving heads here due to space & height constraints but still a substantial rig for the space.

The third venue is the Ice Arena, a short walk away towards the centre of the park, near the ghost train. It has recently had the foyer extended as a cafe bar similar in style to the Globe, and indeed many modern stylish Pubs in City Centres, think Ash wall panels, pastel furniture and designer luminaires.
Inside the arena itself we took in the ambience. Again, it is a thrust shape, the main slab being rectangular capped with a semi-circle so that the banked seating sweeps round three sides of the ice. There is a shallow stage in the fourth wall with flying facilities and it also has a permanent ice surface, although the back third of the stage is taken up with plumbing for a dancing waters installation. The main lighting rig consists of a number of stalactites that are actually lowered to ice level for the skaters to weave between at the start of the second half. There are also a large number of lanterns facing out above the Pros, with a 6x8 vertical Par Can array used for a special effect in the style of "the Matrix" (not having seen the film that went over my head). The venue is the home of the Hot Ice show that has a reputation for spectacular costumes and routines.

As well as the usual vomitories for entrances, there is also a ramp anchored high up in the SR Pros return wall, which can be lowered to ice level. This was apparently original to the 1930s construction, as well as the ability to square off the curved end of the rink for ice hockey events by removing blocks of seating (no longer done due to the effort involved). We were also treated to a demonstration of the skimming machine, merrily melting, scraping and hoovering up the slush to restore the ice to pristine condition after a public skating session.

Time was getting on, however we had the opportunity to visit the Paradise Suite back in the Casino building (mostly now used for corporate events). We also watched a short video of the Eclipse show before thanking our guides and heading back up to the Town centre for our next port of call.

The Grand Theatre is practically in the shadow of the Blackpool tower and is probably the best building in the town. Designed by Frank Matcham in 1895 (with a few minor tweaks in the 1910s) the Auditorium is a riot of fibrous plaster. Built on the cantilevered principle there are very few columns and they do not impact on sightlines, being constrained to the rear cross-aisles on the four levels. There are only two boxes in the splay walls at dress circle level but there are a further eight boxes in the dress circle slips, one of which is the temporary home for sound (with a mixing desk bigger than my office desk). Lighting is at upper Circle level, in a space that was originally a toilet and will be returned to one in due course when the control rooms are eventually relocated to the back of the stalls at some future date.

The stage was being set up for a Radio Broadcast that evening and we were able to see a cloth that consisted of a number of well known seaside saucy postcard scenes, as well as outlines of the Tower and the Grand buildings.

Neil Thompson had initially met us in the Matcham Bar and had given us a briefing about what the Trust was about. Neil told us about the recent £2m restoration project and what had been achieved. The most obvious visual change was to the ceiling- the paintings looked vibrant and the detailing very clean and rich. The Circle & Box fronts had also been restored, although the comparatively low light levels and the swamping effect of a Sodium working light made this a little less apparent. Having not seen the auditorium for at least a decade I did not entirely appreciate how much the auditorium had been improved until watching the restoration video afterwards. If you are interested in how the artisans painstakingly rolled back 100 years of grime, varnishing, painting out and insensitive improvements then this video is a fascinating 45 minutes and well worth the Tenner.

Neil explained about the huge platform that had been rigged to work on the ceiling (& proscenium top) without having to go dark & the various trials and tribulations about funding, listing approvals & officialdom that had to be overcome along the rocky road to completion.

The proscenium was of particular interest. It has twelve lozenge shaped projections around the top of the arch as well as delicate plaster flowering branches at the apex. Underneath the chocolate paint on each of the lozenges was a small rectangular painting dedicated to the twelve months of the year, which are now in full view again.

Onstage, the counterweight sets are gradually being replaced and various Chariot style towers & clamp-on short wired bars were in evidence from M&M, based on Socopex inputs and CEE17 outputs. There also appeared to be projection ports in the back wall, suggesting a time of mixed variety & cinema use before Cinemascope came along. (The Grand was a Bingo Hall for many years before the Trust came into being and it returned to live use).

Whilst the Auditorium is now looking splendid, there is still a lot of work to be done. Some of the exit staircases in the Gods are looking very decrepit with peeling paint, although hopefully the damp problems have been eradicated. FOH is somewhat cramped as is typical for a building where the design brief was for less than 20% of the audience allowed into the foyers due to our legacy class system. There isn't really anywhere for the theatre to expand into at present as it is surrounded on three sides by roads. (The SL road has a huge wrought iron canopy which is overly high due to the insistence of it being a highway by Lancashire CC, despite the fact that it only leads to the dock doors!) The building is mostly of somewhat uninspiring brick, although it does have a monumental corner entrance with an impressive green beehive dome above, although the impact is much reduced now by the subsequent build-up of nearby properties.

Two other things caught my eye internally. Firstly, the ventilation system is somewhat intrusive, there being visible ducting evident above most of the side aisles on all levels. There is a huge duct visible in the stage house above the fly floor (with an enormous silencer unit) but fortunately high enough to not be particularly in the way. The auditorium ducting has been painted out but being a cream colour it is all too apparent.

The other surprise was the steelwork above the stalls, the main girders that the pillars were supporting being visible, along with a lot of rivet heads. Whether a lath ceiling has been removed at some stage or Matcham realised that it would be a trendy effect at the Royal Court a Century later is unclear! Again the beams were painted out but still rather obvious.

There were a lot of things to see and there was an offer to visit the nearby studio. We eventually finished up with Coffee in the Matcham Bar, where there was the opportunity to buy videos (at least two were sold) as well as chat to the staff and other Members.

Thanks to the organisers & hosts for such an interesting day.

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