Take a step backstage at Miss Saigon during its Sunderland Empire run

The show has more than 500 props
The show has more than 500 props

Cocaine and ping pong balls aren’t what you expect to find backstage at Sunderland Empire - but Miss Saigon is no ordinary visitor to the theatre.

With her cast of 38, orchestra of 15 and a technical team of 32 who bring the show to life eight times a week - not to mention her three tonne helicopter - Miss Saigon is one of the biggest shows to have visited the Empire.

Some of the many hats used in the production

Some of the many hats used in the production

Such is her scale, even loading bays have to be used backstage to store the sets and costumes which transport audiences from a wintry Wearside to the heat of the fall of Saigon.

As you’d expect from a Cameron Mackintosh production, there’s been a huge amount of detail paid to bringing this tragic story to life, from the life-size helicopter which rises to the same height as 1.5 double decker buses and the cocaine (talcum powder) exchanged in the seedy back streets of Saigon and Bangkok to the South Asian farmer hats which are imported and the real US military uniforms which have been worn in combat, complete with real bullet holes, worn by the cast.

“When Cameron decided to take Miss Saigon on tour, he wouldn’t accept an imitation of the West End and Broadway productions, it had to be the full show and what people are seeing in Sunderland is exactly what you will see in London or New York,” explained company manager Neil White.

“This isn’t just a date on the tour, we see it as a Sunderland season and the show is designed to fit perfectly, we use every inch backstage. We do two or three visits before each theatre to measure up so it fits beautifully, that’s the Cameron approach.”

The car from the American Dream scene

The car from the American Dream scene

The attention to detail is a constant reminder to the cast of how this musical, unlike many, is rooted in truth. Though the central star-crossed lovers Chris and Kim are fictional, the war-torn world in which they inhabit is very real.

“The first two days of rehearsal are like a real history lesson,” explained Neil. “People think scenes are exaggerated, but all the evidence is there. Girls were put in bars in a bid to escape their situation and men were lonely.

“The scene in which we show the video of Bui Doi (the orphaned children left behind from liaisons between local girls and soldiers) is particularly poignant and still happening, it shows how relevant the story is today.”

Miss Saigon has a truly international cast of 10 nationalities including British, Filipino, Thai, Chinese, Korean and Japanese, Singaporian, Swedish, Dutch and Malaysian, and for many this three week run is their first time in Sunderland.

Many of the uniforms have been worn in combat

Many of the uniforms have been worn in combat

Neil said: “A lot of people see Sunderland on the tour schedule and don’t realise what a beautiful theatre it is. The company come in and are amazed, it’s a pleasure to come here.”

Sunderland is more of a special date than most on the tour. Audiences wanting to see this soaring spectacle will have to catch it while they can as this is the last time the show will be seen in the UK. The haunting musical is one of the most expensive and difficult, logistically, to stage and it won’t be toured again in this country, explains Neil.

“It’s a very expensive show to tour and Cameron wants it done properly, he won’t accept a pale imitation. Our final performance in the UK will be the last night in Sunderland which will also be our 500th performance on this tour before we head to Zurich and Cologne. For many of us it’s been our lives for two years so I’m sure it will be even more emotional than usual.”

•Miss Saigon is at Sunderland Empire until November 17. Tickets from Sunderland Empire Box Office on High Street West, via the ticket centre 0844 871 3022* or www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland

*calls cost up to 7p per minute plus standard network charges. Booking and transaction fees may apply to telephone and online bookings.

•Read our review of Miss Saigon here.

About Miss Saigon

Miss Saigon tells the story of the last days of the Vietnam War, 17 year-old Kim is forced to work in a Saigon bar run by a notorious character known as the Engineer. There she meets and falls in love with an American GI named Chris but they are torn apart by the fall of Saigon.

For three years Kim goes on an epic journey of survival to find her way back to Chris, who has no idea he’s fathered a son.

Leo Tavarro Valdez stars as The Engineer, Sooha Kim as Kim, Ashley Gilmour as Chris, Elana Martin as Ellen, Ryan O’Gorman as John, Gerald Santos as Thuy and Aicelle Santos as Gigi.

Street carts in Miss Saigon

Street carts in Miss Saigon

Miss Saigon is running until November 17

Miss Saigon is running until November 17

Backstage at Miss Saigon

Backstage at Miss Saigon