THE Shakespeare countdown has started in Northallerton.

Leisure centre staff are now counting down to the visit by the Royal Shakespeare Company which arrives on Sunday on the first stop of a national tour.

The company stages The Merry Wives of Windsor and Coriolanus next week at Hambleton Leisure Centre. Performances start on Tuesday, but it will take the company almost two days to set up the stage and convert the leisure centre into an auditorium.

Preparations have been under way for a while.

"Attention to detail is of the highest priority to ensure everything will run as smoothly as possible," said centre manager, Richard Dowson. "An army of staff will be required to help the RSC with their get-in."

Five articulated trucks carrying almost 50 tons of equipment will be emptied into the leisure centre to transform it into a 506-seat auditorium, along with most of the backstage support expected at any theatrical performance.

"The get-in and get-out are just one of the requirements for running and staffing the RSC visit," said Mr Dowson.

"We also have to cover a range of other duties, from car park attendants and ticket collectors to bar staff. This is a very exciting time to be working at the centre.

"It is the first port of call for the RSC tour this year and we want to ensure everything goes without a hitch."

Seven performances of the two plays begin on Tuesday with Coriolanus and finish on Saturday, February 8, with the final showing of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

There are still a few tickets remaining for Coriolanus - contact the box office on 01609 777070 to confirm availability.

Next Friday morning, there is an insight session in the auditorium for which free tickets are available.

Hambleton Leisure Centre is closed for normal use from Monday until Sunday, February 9, at 1pm, to accommodate the RSC visit.