Shining a fascinating spotlight on the hidden world of stage design at Kenilworth’s Talisman Theatre

Talisman stalwart John Ellam has recorded his memories - going back 49 years - in his new book

Designer John Ellam with models of two stage sets featured in the new book.
Designer John Ellam with models of two stage sets featured in the new book.

The hidden world of backstage at the theatre comes into the spotlight in a new book charting decades of ingenuity and design at Kenilworth’s Talisman Theatre.

Get Set takes a close look at the work which goes into designing stage sets using examples from the 49-year collection of Talisman stalwart John Ellam.

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John - a graphic artist by profession - designed his first set for the theatre back in 1971 and has followed that up with well over a hundred since.

The book, which has been published to help raise money for the Talisman’s current redevelopment plans, has a personal history of backstage life at the Barrow Road theatre by writer Peter James before John takes over to guide the reader through a couple of dozen of his favourite designs.

For John, embarking on a new project is always an enjoyable challenge of putting the action in the right place and adding a level of realism to it.

“People always ask me how I come up with my ideas,” said John.

“It’s really no different from acting. You build up your design by reading the script, getting a feel for the piece and chatting with the director.

“A designer is part of the team - lighting, sound, wardrobe, props - which provides the essential background for a production.”

Each design has offered the chance to meet a challenge in depicting a place or even a mood with many providing a visual underscore to the action. The rise of Nazism in Good, from 1987, is backed by a huge German flag turning, slat by slat, to a Swastika.

To accompany his faultless knowledge of the dimensions of the Talisman stage and the possibilities it offers, John has produced perfect working models of his designs - always a popular feature of sessions he’s held to introduce schoolchildren to the work of the designer.

Among the sets featured and illustrated in the book John has picked out stage representations of Dickens’s Victorian London, the frozen Antarctic and the first world war trenches under constant bombardment. Under John’s expert design the backstage crew also memorably created a perfect copy of backstage in a theatre for the comedy Noises Off.

“For Noises Off we used a full stage revolve. It’s supposed to change between acts but we decided the audience should see it in action. So we opened the curtains and the whole thing went round to the tune of Magic Roundabout.

“Milking the audience? Of course and why not? A lot of work went into the design and build and we wanted to show it off.”

Retirement has not seen John, a long-time Kenilworth resident, slow down in his efforts as a designer. While the nation’s theatres gingerly feel their way back from the enforced closure of the lockdown, John has been perfecting his next offering - the set for the stage version of British movie classic The Ladykillers coming up at the theatre in the new year.

“It’s been a challenge," he said. "The set has to include a parlour in an old house, a staircase leading to a bedroom and the front door - viewed from the outside.”

In addition to his career as set designer and builder, Get Set also features many of John’s fabulous poster designs for all the productions, a collection now numbering more than 400.

Get Set, which costs £15, can be ordered directly from John on 01926 856700. Details of forthcoming productions can be found at talismantheatre.co.uk