If you've walked through Exeter's Guildhall shopping centre in the last couple of weeks, you may have spotted some curious goings-on in Unit 22...
There's nothing to buy, but plenty to intrigue window shoppers as The Wardrobe Ensemble theatre company rehearse their new Christmas show in full view of the public.
Eliza and the Wild Swans is the fast-emerging Bristol-based ensemble's very modern take on Hans Christian Andersen's literary fairytale The Wild Swans in a co-production with the Bike Shed Theatre.
A vibrant melee of comedy, action and original live music, it is set in a launderette in a cold, frosty town where Eliza escapes the endless dreariness of the wash cycles by exploring her vivid imagination.
She's absorbed by a world of adventure – specifically, the quest to unite her family and find love in a cold, cold place. And she will be bringing the audience with her, meeting all sorts of extraordinary characters en route.
"We are in full view; we get a series of people walking past, and old men who stand and stare through the window," says the company's Jessie Meadows. "A lot of the time we are doing ridiculous stuff with massive plastic tubes or Marigold gloves and wearing crazy things on our heads. But we are all actors, so we don't care if people are watching.
"It's all about collaborating and improvising all together as we write the script and songs; it's a big part of our ensemble. We're really having fun with it, and we want that for the audience as well; it's a show for all ages."
The Wardrobe Ensemble have a longstanding relationship with the Bike Shed, which recently won the My Theatre Matters! Most Welcoming Theatre Award. Following the massive success of their show Riot – which became a box office hit at Edinburgh last year – Bike Shed director David Lockwood invited them back to Exeter to do something for Christmas. Setting the story in a launderette is a big departure from the original, which begins in a palace, where a princess is determined to find her 11 brothers, who have been turned into swans by their stepmother's spell.
"The thing I really like about the story is that it's a quest brought on by her love for her family. There are sacrifices that she has to make, and it's also a coming-of-age story," says Jessie. "We wanted to show Eliza growing in confidence. And it is very much about her imagination. We liked the idea of a strong, aesthetic space that's rooted in reality, so that you then go off into this fantasy.
"There are definitely some archetypes in there, but we see it as an alternative to the generic panto."
Rather than a king, Eliza's father is a football coach; Eliza dreams of joining his team, but they are all boys and she is not allowed. Doreen, the owner of the launderette (played by Jessie), takes the girl under her wing and guides her on her flight of fancy. Watch out for sponges that turn into mushrooms and shirts that take flight...
Eliza and the Wild Swans runs at the Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter from Tuesday, December 17 through to January 11. There are matinee, afternoon and evening performances on various dates. Visit thewardrobeensemble.com or bikeshedtheatre.co.uk or call 01392 434169.