RAIN or shine, summer or winter, indoors or out, a North-East inspired idea of putting top ice skaters on a rink inside a theatre has become big business.
Whitburn-born Julian Deplidge, son of former Sunderland businesswoman Vee, is following his mother's inspired idea of involving the best Soviet skaters in a show by bringing £4.5 million's worth of ice dance to Darlington and Newcastle during the next few months.
A performance of Snow White, with Julian's Russian wife Olga Pershankova in the title role, will wow County Durham audiences in September (12-16) followed by a new tour of Peter Pan, which plays Newcastle's revitalised Theatre Royal in February. Despite nine months of touring with the slippery task of laying a rink weighing ten to 12 tonnes on top of all stages great and small the team running Wild Rose Ice Theatre Productions remains small and hard-working.
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"The main problem we have is that with any other show you can survive without some of the set or the lighting or the PA to get through opening night but you can't do that if you don't have an ice rink. Water only freezes as fast as it wants to. Touch wood we haven't had any problems for many years," says Julian whose team has also had to cope with the rake (slope) of Darlington Civic Theatre's famous old stage. "If we tried to freeze the water to level the slope if would probably take about five days and the skaters would still find themselves going up and down the slope so we use an expert team of scaffolders from Southend who come in and flatten the area," he explains.
The weight of the ice is "the equivalent of three people stood on every square metre, so if the stage is going to hold a decent chorus line it's going to hold the ice". Darlington's small stage area does present problems but the challenge is nothing compared to when the first Olympic and World standard skaters moved from 60 metre by 30 metre rinks to 12x12 or 14x14 spaces. "The first couple of week's rehearsals you can always spot the new guy but within a couple of weeks they've adapted and they're soon doing backward somersaults and lifts. We've been down as far as 10x10 with 25 skaters plus set and props and managed the full show. Some of the performers have been with us for all 13 years so they've seen it all from 38 degree outdoor venues in Cyprus to below freezing and snowing in Denmark."
This tale of Snow White is closer to the original Grimms' fairytale with the princess befriending a band of woodcutters instead of diamond-mining dwarf brothers. "The dwarves are purely a Disney invention because the original characters were outcast woodcutters. But we are a family show so children automatically associate Snow White with the dwarves so a couple of the smaller girls in the cast play woodcutters. Viktoria (Skhlover) gets picked out time and again by reviewers for her performance. We were offered a team of skating dwarves from Russia but we decided against it."
Julian says his three-and-a-half daughter, Sophia, is also on tour with the company and is equally bewitched by the plot. "It's quite funny, we were rehearsing in Telford for Snow White and we got to the bit where the witch gives her the apple and my daughter ran up to Svetlana (Kouprina) who plays the witch and said 'if you poison my mummy any more I'm going to kick you'," he says.
Julian is looking forward to visiting the North-East again and recalls when his mother, the former press officer for the Empire theatre and Sunderland Flying Club, launched Wild Rose in 1993 after three years of planning.
"Nobody had ever put a full-length skating show in a theatre before and everybody said it couldn't be done. She said 'pants to the lot of you I'm going to give it a go' and staged the first one at Sunderland. My first job was as a 16-year-old selling programmes as slave labour for about £50 a week. Even when Olga and I got married it was the marriage ceremony in the morning and a show that night," jokes Julian.