The Sharp End: Going behind the scenes

Dave Waller takes on the role of set builder for an avant-garde play staged in a tunnel.

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Last Updated: 30 Mar 2012

The Sharp End is packing me off to theatre land to sample life as a set builder, assembling the pieces of Broken Loops, a 'ground-breaking site-specific performance'. Just my luck. After years writing about business, I finally get my own taste of equity, but it's the card-carrying type.

The venue is the Old Vic Tunnels in south London, a grungy network of 'spaces' under the railway tracks out of Waterloo Station, the entrance hidden on a deserted graffiti-lined street round the back.

Inside, it's like a building site: tools and tubs of paint make their home among ladders, old curtains and piles of wood. I introduce myself to my chirpy hosts from Brighton's Rolemop Theatre: Alex, the writer, and Dave, the burly set designer. 'Have you done building?' Dave asks. Nope. He thrusts me a paint roller and a tin of flesh-coloured paint. 'Paint that,' he says, pointing at a large wooden board.

The play may be fictional, but the ticking clock isn't: the team got in yesterday and the show is opening tomorrow night. By that time, this place has to look like a working men's club, or at the very least 'hint' at it. Which I gather is theatre speak for 'not quite pull it off'. They've certainly assembled all the gear: the jukebox, fruit machine, pool table, pub sofas and stools and a dartboard. And a condom machine. They've even built a bar.

I'd best get rolling then - once I've established my motivation. Dave tells me to make the paintwork look shoddy. I can't work out whether I need to try hard to achieve that or if it'll happen naturally. I look at the state of the wallpaper, which Dave describes as 'definitely the worst wallpaper job I've ever done'. Talk about bubbles. It's as if Aero has started doing decor.

As I'm painting, assistant Kelly is busy building a raised dancefloor out of pieces of laminate. I'm taken with the level of effort that's necessary. You have to go through all the steps you would if it were real - only to have to pull it down again a few days later. As Dave knocks up a fictional doorframe, he tells me he usually works on films. Film sets don't need to last as long, so he reckons working in the theatre is a good discipline. These sets may look a bit ropey but they've got strength where it counts.

It turns out Dave is a master of sourcing all this stuff on the cheap - a vital skill these days. The ornate mirrored wall behind the bar is actually a pair of wardrobe doors he picked up from a wood recycling place for £30. The audience won't notice - unless they spot the handles. The whole lot cost £600 - not bad when the pool table alone cost £150, and the sofas £50 each. Most of the rest is recycled from old shows.

My next job is to patch up the back of the sofas using a pile of old curtains and a staple gun. This job is all about mucking in. 'The director's sweeping the floor,' says Dave, gesturing at Alex's fellow co-founder, Kerri. 'Even the writer's hammering nails.' He's not the only one more used to the pen than the paintbrush.

The whole thing is a labour of love: the show only runs Thursday till Sunday, with two shows a day at the weekend, but the attention to detail pays off. After lunch the lights dim to test the play's audio-visual elements. Now swept and dimly lit, the place suddenly and magically oozes the nicotine-brown mood of a 1980s working men's club. We have a set. 'This is what I like about this job,' says Dave. 'Having something in your mind and seeing it come together - after wondering whether it'll even work at all.'

They're expecting about 60 people each night, at £12 a ticket. 'You don't get into this for riches,' says Alex, who as well as writing the play did all the AV: characters' 'memories' portrayed in short films projected onto the wall. This has turned into a profitable sideline for the company - Rolemop also provides corporate AV and wall illuminations for Chichester castle.

Is there a downside to this boundless creativity? 'The long days are exhausting,' says Dave, as he screws in a rack for the pool cues, next to the dummy fire alarm.

And so, after hours of frustrating menial tasks, I suddenly realise they've given me all the personal mastery I need to play Hamlet - the slings and arrows (not to mention the paintbrush) of outrageous fortune have never been put to better use ...

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