Icing on the stage

THEY’VE had some funny things on stage at the Playhouse. They’ve had dozens of marching Vietnamese troops in Miss Saigon; dancing cups and saucers in Beauty And The Beast; a stallion in this week’s operas, a pile of dead bodies in Greek opera Oedipus Rex - hey, they’ve even had Sheena Easton singing 9 To 5.

And now there’s going to be an ice rink set up in front of the stalls.

What? Yes, an ice rink, as the venue is transformed for four days into a skaters’ paradise for a special ice ballet which takes the art of gliding across a frozen surface to music out of the sports arenas and into the theatre.

There are two shows: The Nutcracker On Ice (self-explanatory) and Sensational Ice, a compilation of the company’s greatest hits.

While most ice shows, like Holiday On Ice or Disney On Ice, take place in large rinks, British company Wild Rose International specialise in more conventional (or should that be unconventional?) venues.

Since setting up in 1993, they’ve toured Britain as well as Australia and continental Europe - where they found a Royal fan in Prince Rainier of Monaco - with their versions of fairytales, popular musicals and ballets performed by competitive skaters, including former Olympic stars and members of the Russian Circus. Yet it’s the show that skating experts said would never work.

Vee Deplidge, a Yorkshire car saleswoman and charity fundraiser who turned theatrical promoter after her marriage broke up, was the woman who came up with the idea.

"I decided that ballet and ice merged together would make a marvellous show but everyone said it couldn’t be done on a stage because it’s too small - they need a run-in over a large space so they can get up speed to do runs and somersaults.

"They said it was boring without those elements. I got the same response from companies all over the world, but I knew it could be done."

she explains: "I knew that the moves I wanted were not the sort that they have to rush around the stage for. I could see them spinning on their hands or just going round the stage at great speed and throwing their partners in the air to spin them a few times. Those were the elements I wanted, lots of flying and aerial acrobatics.

"I thought the Russians were the best skaters in the world - you can see the fire in their eyes - so I approached them."

The Russian All-Stars agreed and after months of rehearsals in Moscow, where the Moskva river freezes solid in winter and people often skate to work, they put together a production of The Sleeping Beauty.

"I could get more money and more people in an arena but I didn’t want to compete with the other shows, I wanted something intimate," says Deplidge. "It’s a night out at the theatre and people can dress up without freezing to death if they want. They can see the skaters better, their expressions, they can almost reach out and touch them which you can’t in an arena."

Of course, taking not just a company of skaters, stage hands, props and costumes around on tour but building an ice rink at every venue is some business.

The technical stats involved are fearsome: 14 tons of ice on the stage, one-and-a-quarter miles of pipes, 400 jubilee clips keeping it together and a crew member chucking cold water on it every few minutes to maintain the minus 15 degree temperature.

"We have got it down to a fine art. It’s got easier as we go along because we’ve perfected the technique," says Deplidge. "We have a compressor now which can turn the water to ice much quicker."

The first thing to be laid down is the plywood and timber base of the rink, which looks like "a giant baking tray but square instead of round. We put polythene down around it, then lay out the pipes about an inch apart - if it’s not exactly an inch the ice won’t freeze all the way through. They then connect to header pipes at the top of the stage that are connected to the compressor."

The pipes are then filled with a type of anti-freeze mixed with water, then the temperature is turned down. "We buy crushed ice from fishmongers or whoever has two or three tons of it, which is just to start the process. One of the boys sprays it with cold water every 15 minutes so it freezes on the top then once the ice gets to three inches thick it becomes thick enough to skate on."

It doesn’t end there as the ice has to be scraped and resurfaced with hot water every few hours to keep it smooth.

After all that, it’s ironic to hear Deplidge say: "When people see the show they sometimes even forget it’s on ice. They come out and say they thought they were at a musical or a ballet, because it’s very theatrical."

Perhaps the clinking in their glasses at the interval might remind them.

May 6-10, Sensational Ice, Tuesday-Wednesday, The Nutcracker On Ice, Thursday-Saturday, The Playhouse, Greenside Place, 7.30pm (and 2.30pm Wed/Sat), 8.50-22.50, 0870-606 3424

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