Backstage Pass

Meet the man who does Mrs Doubtfire’s makeup

Craig Forrest-Thomas shares a day in the life of a West End hair & makeup designer

The Mrs Doubtfire musical has now been running at the Shaftesbury Theatre for over a year, and anyone lucky enough to have seen it will know that the show isn’t just a heartwarming good time – it’s a feat of transformation. Not only does Gabriel Vick’s Daniel make himself over as elderly nanny Mrs Doubtfire multiple times, but there’s a point in the show when a whole chorus line of Mrs Doubtfires joins him onstage, all complete with the signature grey wig.

As is the case with every West End production, there’s as much talent offstage as on. Craig Forrest-Thomas sat down with us to talk through how he creates and re-creates the distinctive looks that make Mrs Doubtfire come alive.

Craig Forrest-Thomas working backstage on Gabriel Vick as Mrs Doubtfire

What’s your full job title?

I’m the UK Makeup Associate Designer. I’m also Head of Wigs, Hair and Makeup on the London production, and I’m also the Associate Makeup Designer for the USA tour.

What responsibilities do those roles cover?

Doing the makeup design, I came up with the designs for the show. Some of them were already set up from America, which I just brought over here, and then developed them further. I also worked with a UK prosthetics maker, Rob Smith, who made all of our prosthetics for Mrs Doubtfire. I get the pleasure of doing Daniel/Mrs Doubtfire’s prosthetic makeup every night, which is lovely, and creating the iconic Mrs Doubtfire look. I’m just making sure the designs are always adhered too, and that everyone’s looking how they should.

Then as Head of Wigs, Hair and Makeup, I run a department of four. We have our plots backstage – everyone has tasks to do, everyone has changes, whether that’s wig changes or hair changes or makeup changes. We’re there with the actors doing those changes every night. On my plot, I follow Mrs Doubtfire the whole show, and obviously he’s in and out of Mrs Doubtfire and Daniel constantly, so there’s lots of quick changes in the wings, backstage, even behind certain bits of props. It’s very quick. We’ve got full prosthetics to go on, a wig to go on, lipstick, false teeth, glasses, a body suit and padding. It’s a full operation. I also look after all the wigs. We’ve got about 120 wigs in the show, which is quite a lot!

What does a typical day in the theatre look like for you?

We come in about one o’clock or two o’clock if there’s an evening performance, and we’ll get the wigs cleaned. All the front lace needs cleaning from the foundation from the night before, and any bits of glue that are on the lace need cleaning off. Then we’ll block the wigs, which is where we use little pins to block all the front of the lace down so that we can create tension and we can work on the wigs safely. Then we start either resetting them with rollers or turning them, depending on the style.

Once we’ve done all that we do the preset, where we take them downstairs. Every wig has a little home, and it will live there until that wig comes off during the show. When we’re all preset, we’re all ready to go – we check the wet wipes, check tissues, make sure everyone’s makeup’s there and we have everything we need downstairs for the show. Then we have a bit of dinner, and then it’s the half hour call. We have all the actors come into our wig room, and we get everyone prepared, get everyone their wigs. Then we have beginners, and then it’s downstairs and we do our plot all evening. Then the show’s done about 10pm.

It does become normal. I’ve been doing this for about 17 or 18 years now, and your body gets used to it. Sometimes, if you have a night off, you’re a bit antsy, and it’s really hard to relax.

Craig Forrest-Thomas working backstage on Gabriel Vick as Mrs Doubtfire

How long does it take to pull that Mrs Doubtfire look together every night?

It’s actually quite quick. Normally when we’re doing any sort of filming or promotional work, it takes about two hours, because everything’s blended on the edges; it’s very soft makeup. It has to look like real skin. But we do have little tricks for the stage version, which I wouldn’t want to give away, but it does look amazing onstage because we have that distance from the stage to the audience, and the lighting as well which softens everything up.

What’s been your favourite look that you’ve put onstage so far in your career?

I’ve just designed the Shrek tour, and I love a lot of the fairytale characters that I did in that, like the Sugar Plum Fairy. I did The Lion King as well, and I did Scar a lot. He’s a great character to do because he’s just so sinister and so evil, and you can really play with his facial features.

When you come on board with a production like The Lion King, where everything’s very specific, how much room is there to inject your own creativity into what you’re doing?

Obviously the designs are already created, but inevitably every single artist is going to have their own unique styles. When I’m designing something, and I’m passing on my designs to other team members, I always like to see what creative flair they bring to the look as well, because they might add something you never thought about. It’s nice to see people’s interpretations.

I designed Madagascar The Musical, and we don’t have a makeup artist on tour with that, so the actors all do their own makeup. I did design quite ambitious loops, because they’re playing a lion and a hippo, so you’ve got to really go for the makeup. I’ve done it for six years now and every year, seeing how the actors interpret my designs, is so much fun. It creates so much individuality.

Craig Forrest-Thomas working backstage on Gabriel Vick as Mrs Doubtfire

If someone wanted to make a career of this, where should they start?

There’re so many courses nowadays. You can either go private and pay quite a substantial fee, or you can go to an actual college or university, which is what I did. I studied there for three years, and then when I left college, I started getting work experience with Scottish opera. From there, I just started booking paid gigs, and I went on tour, and then I landed my first big musical, which was Beauty And The Beast. Once you start, it’s like a snowball effect, and you start making contacts. There’re also other areas you can go into – you don’t have to just do theatre – you could do film and TV, or fashion… You’ll usually cover everything on your course and start specialising in your final year.

There are also places like Delamar Academy and Brushstroke Make Up Academy, which are quite intense courses, but they are good if you want to just get something under your belt and then get out there working. Mainly you just have to go around asking for work experience – I have lots of CVs that get dropped off at the stage door – and try and get your  name out in the industry.

Craig Forrest-Thomas working backstage on Gabriel Vick as Mrs Doubtfire

What would you say is the thing that you love most about your role?

The creativity. I’ve always been arty – I went to art college for a year after school, so I’ve got that artistic background. I love makeup in general, and prosthetics, and theatrical makeup especially. You get that instant gratification when you do a makeup look, and then the actor will go on stage and you can see your work immediately. Then you can make a note to yourself if you don’t like something and change it the next night, and you can keep adding to it until you’ve reached a point where you just feel like you’ve got a complete character. There might be certain things that the actor might do on stage that you didn’t see before which could complement your makeup. So if they’re very expressive with their eyebrows, or with their mouth, you can adjust the makeup look to complement what they’re doing. I love the live element of theatre, which I think is something we don’t get with filming, because you have to wait for months to see your work on screen.

What makes this show special to work on?

I think we’re so lucky in that this show has so much love and heart. It’s a story about love at the end of the day. That kind of emanates backstage – we all have a really lovely relationship. It’s just such a pleasure to come to work every day and it’s a pleasure to create a character like Mrs. Doubtfire, who’s so iconic and so well-loved by so many people. It’s a childhood favourite of a lot of people so they’ve got expectations of how she should look, and I never take it lightly that I’m creating that character for someone that might be just needing that little lift, who this story means a lot to.

Mrs Doubtfire is now playing at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Find tickets here