When I think about the best stage designs I’ve seen, I think of productions both big and small; Matilda, Follies, My Judy Garland Life, War Horse, Finding Joy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe…the list goes on and on. The ability of good design to capture different worlds, times and moods can make a production brilliant…a rickety or poorly conceived design can break a production by the same token. The resourceful minds behind extravagant, clever or intricate designs are names we should all know, so here’s a run down of my favourite designs and designers of recent years… I claim no expertise whatsoever of course, but I’m going to share my choices with you regardless!
Matilda – Rob Howell
Howell’s set and costume design for this production is playful and seems to bask in the inventiveness of childhood. The musical sequences rely significantly on Howell’s visuals for impact and although I saw the show pre Always Time For Theatre at the Cambridge Theatre in London, it’s a production which remains fresh in my memory, with the designs being particularly memorable. I’m hoping to catch the upcoming tour so watch this space for a full review!
Wendy and Peter Pan and Into the Woods- Colin Richmond
Another pre- Always Time For Theatre show but again, brilliant designs will stay with you, and that’s definitely the case with Richmond’s work on this grand production from the RSC. Bringing the magic of Neverland to life on stage is no easy feat, but Richmond’s ambitious designs offered scale and substance, complete with an impressive ship and some lovely contrasts between the Darling’s delicate orderly world and the hap-hazard charm of Peter’s humble abode. Richmond also designed Opera North’s production of Into the Woods a couple of years ago. The decision to set this well known piece as a story told at school made for some wonderfully unique perspectives of the story. Richmond’s classroom was vibrant and quaint with its recognisable tiny furniture conjuring involuntary nostalgia while shifts to the woods offered cunning contrasts in a production which championed unusual ways of framing well known stories.
Things I Know to be True – Geoff Cobham
In a solid example of a stellar company finding stellar design to offer up visuals befitting the brilliance of the story, Frantic Assembly’s deeply moving story of familial frictions finds great resonance in Cogham’s designs; perfectly attuned to the roller coaster of emotions and situations playing out, the set offers stylised simplicity and unusual recreations of the everyday that somehow seemed utterly inspired up on a stage… Building and filling garden patches can be surprisingly beautiful don’t you know…read the review here.
Follies – Vicki Mortimer
Speaking of beauty… Follies was a beautifully evocative and enchanting production, with Mortimer’s lush and extravagant costume designs gorgeously set against the decaying theatre positioned like a distant memory in the subtly lit background (Paul Constable’s Lighting Design providing the perfect compliments to Mortimer’s designs throughout). I’m so glad to hear that Follies will return later this year (dates to be confirmed) – in the meantime, you can read my review .
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Tom Scutt
I’ve seen two phenomenal productions of this much loved story. The first was the magnificent production at Kensington Gardens’ The Threesixty Theatre a good few years ago (no review…). The fact that Scutt designed set, costume AND the superb puppets makes him my hero. Everything about this production made it memorable, with the set and puppets being the biggest source of awe. Performed in a grand tent, Scutt’s designs involved projecting backdrops onto the tent, enveloping the audience in Narnia with enchanting flair. His designs for Aslan allowed nuance somehow while the projections offered visuals of shattered ice and creeping frost…such glorious visuals I tell you!
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and War Horse – Rae Smith
The second production of this Lewis’ classic landed at the end of last year (review here). Smith’s designs, much like Scutt’s, involved enveloping the audience in a 360 vision of Narnia, making use of synchronised lanterns and wonderfully breathing life onto everyday objects to create something extraordinary. Suitcases becoming trains, sheets becoming a snowy landscape and over-sized doors spinning out into exciting nothingness being a few memorable visuals offered by Smith. Anyone following me over the last year will know that my love for War Horse (review here) knows no bounds…and lo and behold, Rae Smith is to be thanked for both the designs and sketches of Joey that we see throughout the production. The designs in War Horse are the epitome of sophisticated simplicity; with minimal fuss, War and farmland are evoked and the war sequences are spectacularly dramatic (thanks to both Smith’s designs and Paule Constable’s lighting design). Smith also designed the set for Barber Shop Chronicles, capturing the safe haven of a barber shop with a comfortable energy which also offers literal comfort (I was hauled up on stage at the production I saw so I can vouch for those comfy seats!) I’m looking forward to seeing Smith’s magic in the Touring production of This House, which lands at West Yorkshire Playhouse this month 23rd February – 10th March) – here’s the trailer if you fancy catching Smith’s latest piece! Note: the trailer features the West End cast.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – Bunny Christie
When it comes to capturing the world from the perspective of a protagonist with a condition most cannot begin to understand or imagine, it takes some real ingenuity. In another example of perfectly interwoven lighting and set design, Christie’s designs were often reliant on lighting for impact, with this production being the most resounding example of that reliance on lighting design to create arresting, sharp worlds. The designs were almost other-worldly in portraying the methodical, mathematical, tunnel-visioned way that Christopher, who has Asperger’s, sees his world. A fascinating set of designs from Christie translated his experiences of the world wonderfully. Unfortunately, this is another pre Always Time For Theatre show, so I can’t direct you to a review – but it would have been an easy five stars!
My Judy Garland Life – Tom Rogers
This nostalgic show played at Nottingham Playhouse a few years ago now (but I did do a Lasting Impressions review for this one, which you can read here) – Rogers’ designs transported us into the imaginings of a devout fan of Judy Garland. The designs were strikingly cinematic and heavily responsible for propelling us into times gone by as a modern teen adopts Garland as her confidante. I can still see those film projections and a dancing Natasha Tripney as Garland even now…
The Phantom of the Opera – Maria Björnson
Well, stage designs don’t get much more grand or dramatic than Phantom, do they? An endlessly atmospheric production lies at the feet of Björnson’s inspired choices – every scene change compliments the plot to perfection and although I saw this production ten years ago (you guessed it, no review – sorry!), the visuals have never left me.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips – Lez Brotherson
The designs for Kneehigh’s productions are pretty much always a perfect reflection of the production: top notch, endlessly inventive and striking. Brotherson’s designs for this production (review here) were a particularly glowing example of Kneehigh’s all round perfect school report; every box ticked and set designs passing with distinction for their sophisticated achievement of stylised simplicity. I adored the cone like shape framing the stage space like a protruding exclamation mark above the band. The levels allowed for depth in both design and performance while the imitation of a wide variety of large scale props such as vehicles were delightfully innovative.
The Tin Drum – Naomi Dawson
Another Kneehigh production? Really? Yes! Talent attracts talent it would seem, for every Kneehigh production boasts a fantastic set. Dawson’s set for The Tin Drum was genius; shattering windows, set pieces used in every possible way and a grand, imposing structure offering an underlying ominous tone. Brilliant. Read the review here.
Dead Dog in a Suitcase and Hansel and Gretel – Michael Vale
One last Kneehigh designer to have impressed is Michael Vale. Dead Dog in a Suitcase; a dark tale needing a designer to achieve an over-arching atmosphere of thrilling threat, and Vale certainly delivered. Vale also designed the first Kneehigh production I ever saw (the beginning of my love affair that I make no secret of) – I distinctly remember the production offering a real-time knock-on sequence taking a ball from one side of the stage to the other, spiralling and running along various routes to reach its destination. Factor in the surprisingly emotional decision to line the stage with tiny children’s shoes – reminders of the witch’s tragic young victims – and I was dazzled by the dark beauty of Vale’s design concoctions.
Slava’s Snow Show – Slava Polunin
If you desire spectacle, look no further than the stratospheric brilliance of Slava Polunin, who takes you on a journey into world filled with snow and imagination. Playful and visually stunning, with a show-stopping finale and a permanent invitation to re-visit childhood wonderment for the duration, I will never tire of seeing this show – or of Polunin’s vast and unfathomable imagination. My review can be found here.
Finding Joy – Carl Davies
I am always struck by the inventive genius of Vamos’ sets. Forever shape-shifting set pieces allow the company to shift through time and space like sorcerers. With a deft reversal of a curtain or a kitchen that becomes a bedroom with the flip of a few panels, Davies makes any Vamos production memorable as an impressively slick piece of theatre. Frustratingly, I can only find one Vamos programme, but I have been enamoured of every misleadingly pretty, simple set I’ve seen them transform before my eyes. I am ever a fan, Vamos! Here’s my review of Finding Joy.
The Color Purple – John Doyle
Being responsible for both design and direction for this stunning production of Alice Walker’s heartbreaking, heartwarming story makes Doyle one deft creative mind. The set for this production at the Menier Chocolate Factory was an ode to the space and to the story; bare wood and chairs attached to a wall, with a few steps to allow for shifting levels and focal points. It sounds overly simple, but it was perfect for this production and I loved it. Review here.
(the fall of) The Master Builder – Alex Lowde
Another example of brilliant designs seen on stages last year (read my review here). Lowde’s stark set design (impact heightened by lighting design from Sinèad McKenna of course) allowed our protagonist’s downfall to be spot-lit and his inevitable exposure to be reflected in his daily surroundings. The moving wall closing in on the character as he teeters ever closer to the consequences for his actions remains the design highlight of my theatre year last year. The perfection of that symbolism is both elegant and visually alarming – the stuff of nightmares in fact, and only stopping short of the nightmare realm via the stark office environment.
Golem and The Animals and Children Took to the Streets – Paul Barritt
1927 Productions is another favourite company of mine. The company intertwines live action with animations and the visual impact of actors interacting with animations with such precision is a weird and wonderful delight. Technically, the performers are on stage with nothing more than a series of white screens, but thanks to Barritt, entire worlds and even key characters are introduced via those screens. Watching Barritt’s animations provides an education in the power of alternative theatre; he can create deeply affecting environments crawling with vermin or teeming with an air of desolation just through sketches and simple movement. There’s nothing like watching a 1927 production, that’s for sure. You can read my review of Golem here and The Animals and Children Took to the Streets here . Here’s a glimpse of what I’m talking about here:
If I spent a week or a month going through my trunk of programmes, I could triple the length of this stellar design recognition role call, but for now, I’ll leave you with this starter pack of most memorable designers offering up theatrical magic for the masses…