Sew far sew good for panto

Blackhall Players wardrobe mistress, Margaret Stephenson.
Blackhall Players wardrobe mistress, Margaret Stephenson.
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SEAMSTRESS Margaret Stephenson is putting the finishing touches to the costumes for the latest performance by a theatre group which has been running for more than 50 years.

Around 1,000 people are expected at five fun-packed performances of Little Miss Muffet next week.

The audience will be watching polished performances and spectacular costumes and Margaret is responsible for putting together every single cast member’s wardrobe.

The Mail’s TRACY WALKER spoke to her about her work behind the scenes.

“I CAN’T remember when I first started to make all these costumes – it seems eons ago,” said Margaret Stephenson, wardrobe mistress of the Blackhall Community Players.

Margaret, who received an MBE in 2006 for her services to the Blackhall community, has always made her own clothes, kitting out her own family decades ago.

Her grandmothers and aunties used to be involved in dress-making, and Margaret made her own clothes from an early age.

She studied dressmaking for O-levels at the former Henry Smith Grammar School in Hartlepool.

The group has been running for 51 years and Margaret is busy putting the finishing touches to costumes for their latest production, Little Miss Muffet, which has around 40 cast members aged from seven to 70.

Margaret, who lives in Horden with husband Alan, who also acts with the group, has been coming up with ideas and making stunning outfits for the group’s productions for at least 20 years.

She took over the role from the late Evelyn Jackson.

Margaret, who has worked for an amusement arcade at Seaton Carew since 1976, said: “She used to say ‘make things to fit’, but didn’t cut anything or make anything.

“But now I make everything to match the person it’s intended for.

“I can’t remember when I started out.

“It started off with me and my friend making things as there was nothing suitable at the time.

“But then someone said ‘will you make me that blouse’ and so on and it went from there.”

She makes around 50 costumes per show, which amounts to hundreds over the years. Margaret thinks she must have used more than 100ft of elastic for the latest production alone, and dedicates hours to making the outfits.

“It’s a lot of work,” she said.

“Because I start in September, have a fortnight off at Christmas and do 10 to 12 hours a day, it’s manic.”

She added: “I enjoy the finished result and I like people to be happy in their costume.

“If you are not happy with what you are wearing, just like when you go out, you don’t perform so well.”

Margaret, whose daughters Catherine and Carole and grand-daughter Francesca have had roles in the group’s productions, has a picture in her mind of how she likes the costumes, and therefore the scenes, to look.

She said: “Sometimes when I set a scene, I like sparkle for the finale.

“A couple of years ago, the dancers were doing a tap dance and the dresses I made for them were bright yellow and sequined, a bit like Shirley Temple, with big puffed skirts with nets underneath.

“When the curtains opened, everybody went ‘aaah’ – that’s what I aim for.

“I always say your opening scene has to be brilliant - if it’s not, they are going to think ‘oh’, but if it is, their anticipation of what’s to come is going to be brilliant, and they tell all their friends.”

Margaret, who has a sewing machine at her home and admits the materials have taken over her dining room, said: “I may do a revamp of a previous costume, say by making a dress into a skirt.

“But with most of it, I start from scratch.

“The ideas just come out of my head.

“I’m a big theatre buff myself and when I go to a show I’m interested in what they are wearing.”

A centrepiece of this year’s production is the spider, played by 17-year-old Olivia Gelson.

Margaret made the spider’s four arms by stuffing material with kapok, which is similar to cotton wool.

Little Miss Muffet runs at Blackhall Community Centre, in Hesleden Road, from Tuesday until Saturday next week.

Weekday performances are from 7pm and the Saturday show is at 2pm.

Tickets cost £4 and are available by calling Margaret on (0191) 5867572, Millie Tempest on (0191) 5871851 or the community centre on (0191) 5867396.