You should come out whistling the set (lights, sound) …

Ian MacNeil's set takes centre stage in the 2009 NT revival of An Inspector Calls. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ian MacNeil's set takes centre stage in the 2009 NT revival of An Inspector Calls. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Brian Attwood was editor of The Stage from 1994 to 2014.
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Is it a paradox that sound in theatre is something we rarely shout about - unless it’s the inappropriate noise emanating from one or other end of whoever’s in the next seat?

Thanks to the inspired suggestion of my fellow columnist Honour Bayes we should redress the balance a little in our forthcoming piece on Let the Right One In.

The intended focus is sound designer Gareth Fry. He should need no introduction but here’s a snatch: Olympics opener in 2012, chair of the new Association of Sound Designers, Olivier in 2009 (Black Watch), an Australian Helpmann award in 2008 (BW again), Olivier in 2007 (Waves).

[pullquote]There’s an old saying most of us know, to the effect that you shouldn’t come out of a show whistling the set. In other words the technical contributions should function as the unsung heroes. I beg to differ.[/pullquote]

Is it fair to suggest that some productions are more dependent upon others for sound artists (yes, artists) of vision? To be honest, yes and the stage adaptation of what is a cult classic of a film is certainly one of them. It’s about creating depth, dimension and suggestion – a vital tool when you can’t cut and edit.

There’s an old saying most of us know, to the effect that you shouldn’t come out of a show whistling the set. In other words the technical contributions should function as the unsung heroes – they do what they do without the audience realising or appreciating them. And if you do notice them, something’s wrong.

I beg to differ.

Each time this issue comes up I think back to my reluctant encounter many, many years ago with Stephen Daldry’s An Inspector Calls, a play I’d become inured to after countless amdram versions had ripped the soul from it. And then I saw Ian McNeil’s genius of a set that eradicated years of Priestley-lite at a glance (read what Aleks Sierz has to say on the subject here).

More recently, we have seen one of the most remarkable syntheses of sound, light and set in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As I’ve said previously, the subject matter is close to my heart anyway but put that aside: it is the technical and artistic achievement we should acknowledge, interweaving three elements that are each realised brilliantly.

Together they enable us as much as we can to inhabit rather than simply observe Christopher’s world view.

Yes, it’s also down to the talents of Mark Haddon, Simon Stephens, Marianne Elliott, Luke Treadaway and co. Yet the three of its seven Oliviers that cheered me most were those won by Paule Constable (lighting), Bunny Christie and Finn Ross (set design) and Ian Dickinson and Adrian Sutton (sound design).

Pure genius you can’t put into words.


  1. I certainly enjoy whistling a set that supports the script, score and actors and I particularly enjoy an opportunity say “Wow!”. But I am a bit concerned about what seems to be a growing affection for lights afflicted with St Vitus dance to the point of distraction. Do these perpetrators never look at the wonderful light of the likes of Paule Constable, Mark Jonathan and Rick Fisher?
    And does the sound have to be so un universally loud?

  2. Brian,
    so very true, i guess most ‘punters’ do not realise what they have experienced and how much difference a little piece of genius can make. Where amdram can inspire you with the passion and promise of an individual in not so well lit or produced events the professional stage is complimented by the passion and professionalism of so many technical experts who can compliment a Director and/or Producers vision.
    Nicely put, it gets my vote
    Michael Anderson
    Group Head of H&S for Earls Court & Olympia

  3. Sound & Lights go together now more than ever as these motorised units add up to a distracting background whirr that leaves me both distracted and baffled: How did the director allow it? There was a recent very wonderful exception when Daddy Long Legs was at the St James. There were no motorised lights and, just as in the past, the music and dialogue were heard against a background of blessed silence. Even in productions that have a larger and louder band than that one I remain aware of the awful noise. Even non-musical productions, the work of our leading directors, have this now prevalent barrier between the audience and the play.

  4. It’s always good to see the design, craft and technical aspects of performance acknowledged. I agree with Brian about ‘Curious Incident…’ – a bold and at times exquisitely beautiful staging, where the set, lighting, sound and video didn’t just support the narrative – at key moments they _were_ the narrative. And there’s the rub – its very frustrating that after years of video design in the West End and mainstream theatre, and decades of video and media in dance and experimental/avant garde theatre practice, and even more decades of traditional analogue projection in theatre and especially opera, the Olivier Awards still haven’t caught up. Finn Ross’s projection work is the stand-out element for me in that show – genuinely ground breaking. Yet the Olivier goes to him and Bunny Christie jointly for ‘set design’. It really is time to recognise video design as a separate discipline.

  5. Nick,
    You’ve raised a point that I omitted to and wish I’d had the foresight to include re: Finn Ross’s projection work. Which makes me guilty of a similar oversight to the one of which I complain!
    Thanks and couldn’t agree more.

  6. Sound is such a personal view, just what is loud always being the key question/complaint. Good sound invariably going unremarked that being the measure of its perfection. Many years of experiencing artistes toured systems being set up, the master control then being wound up to 11 have more than highlighted for me the benefit of a good empathetic person on the controls, their skills being less than understood or appreciated. The complexity of current mega PA systems used on multiple artiste bills with many microphone changes and differing tone and instrument balance requirements clearly require great understanding on the part of the person mastering the control desk/s. All a long way from the day of the enormously successful Black and White Minstrel show where the pit band were live, the vocals all on tape (2 in case one broke)and played through a 200w Shure Vocal Master PA system controlled from the prompt corner.

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