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Designer Peter McKintosh: ‘Cameron Mackintosh gave me £1,000 and changed my life’

Peter McKintosh Peter McKintosh
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The Olivier-winning set and costume designer is no stranger to West End transfers, with recent hits including The 39 Steps and My Night With Reg. He tells Nick Smurthwaite why he owes it all to a certain impresario

If you conducted a poll into the most influential stage design of the last 50 years, my guess is that Sean Kenny’s set for the musical Oliver!, first seen in 1960 then revived in 1977 and again in 1983, would come out on top.

Many of our top designers cite it as their childhood ‘eureka’ moment, among them Peter McKintosh, who came on a school trip from Plymouth to see Oliver! in 1977 and never looked back.

“Who wouldn’t be inspired by something as extraordinary and seminal as Sean Kenny’s set? It had three revolving pieces, groundbreaking in its day, and was sheer magic to an impressionable kid,” he says. “I remember sitting there thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I don’t suppose I even knew there was such a job as a set designer.”

In fact the secondary school McKintosh attended, Plymouth College, steered him in the direction of architecture, finding his theatrical aspirations hard to fathom, and he finished up at the prestigious Bartlett School of Architecture in London.

“I knew within three hours of arriving there that I was in the wrong place,” he recalls. “I lasted one term. All I did in that time was to go and see as much London theatre as possible.”

Once extricated from his architectural course, he enrolled on a theatre studies degree course at Warwick University, where he spent most of his time putting on shows with like-minded students.

“I discovered Stephen Sondheim during my time there and set my heart on reviving Company. Nobody had ever heard of it but it turned out to be the most successful thing we ever did as a drama society. The whole run was packed out. Cameron Mackintosh heard about it and gave us £1,000 to bring it to the Fortune Theatre in London for one night to raise money for charity.

“It changed all our lives because it was all about ambition and realising your dreams as much as it was about putting on a good show.”

After a stint at the theatre design course attached to Bristol Old Vic School, McKintosh went on to assist top designer Mark Thompson for more than seven years, working on such landmark shows as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium, Alan Bennett’s The Wind in the Willows and The Madness of George III at the National Theatre, and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, also at the NT.

So busy was Thompson that he delegated more and more responsibility to McKintosh, encouraging him to progress from assistant to designer in his own right.

McKintosh’s first major solo flight was the George Stiles and Anthony Drewe musical Honk! – an adaptation of The Ugly Duckling – at the National in 1999, which won the Olivier award in 2000 for best musical. Baseball caps with yellow peaks suggested beaks while a Manchester United scarf became a turkey’s tail feathers.

McKintosh was involved in another Olivier-award winner in 2005 when he worked with director Maria Aitken and writer-performer Patrick Barlow on The 39 Steps, producing some wonderfully witty costumes and props. On Broadway it was nominated for two Tony awards.

“The New York audience completely got what I’d done, which was a deceptively simple design that was actually very carefully thought out,” says McKintosh. “It was something that could only have worked on stage, just a bunch of people in a room telling a story, no bells and whistles. It lasted in one form or another for 10 years – the most wonderful experience, making people laugh all over the world.”

Whenever possible, McKintosh prefers to do both sets and costumes, believing “making a whole world”, as he puts it, lends cohesion to the show’s design aesthetic.

The most recent examples of this – The Wind in the Willows at the Palladium and On the Town at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre – presented him with very different challenges.

He says: “It was my fifth musical at the Park and the thing I love about working there is that it makes you do things you wouldn’t ever dream of doing in a more conventional pros arch theatre. It encourages you to think outside the box.”

For On the Town, about three lusty sailors on leave in 1940s New York, his challenge was to suggest a Brooklyn dockyard that could also double for the night spots where the sailors hang out. His to-do list also included a New York taxi, a full-size dinosaur skeleton and Coney Island. What sparked his over-arching idea for the set, namely a framework of deconstructed shipping containers, was a photograph by Ormond Gigli of brightly clothed models standing in the window frames of an old brownstone building in New York.

“I showed the picture to Drew (McOnie, the director), who loved it, and it kind of set the tone for the look of the show, that juxtaposition between the earthy, dockside reality of the shipping containers, and the bright, bold colours of the dresses worn by the girls. Drew always said he wanted it to be a bright show. What he does so brilliantly is to take the spirit of the original and give it a contemporary twist. The way he incorporates the taxi into his choreography is an example of this.”

Designing for the Park is quite different from designing for enclosed theatres, if only because half of the show is played in daylight. “You can close everything down with lighting in a darkened auditorium,” explains McKintosh. “When you get an intimate scene between two people on a stage that is basically the size of the Coliseum, you have to be really clear about where the audience is meant to look. Focus is all important.”

Given the rave reviews for On the Town, and the award nominations that are sure to follow, did he give any consideration to a West End transfer in his deliberations? “No, I didn’t think about that at all. My only consideration was to make it work in Regent’s Park.”

Jamie Hendry’s production of The Wind in the Willows, which started out at Theatre Royal Plymouth, the designer’s home turf, was always in line for a West End transfer. It reunited McKintosh not only with the theatre where he first cut his teeth as a scenic painter, but also with director Rachel Kavanaugh, whom he has worked with on multiple occasions.

He describes their working relationship as “symbiotic”, and, as with all the best director-designer teams, one where it is difficult to spot who has done what.

Quite different from the memorable 1990 Bennett version at the National, this is very much a full-blown musical adaptation, always intended to be “big, bold and boisterous… modern-looking, funny and family friendly,” says McKintosh. “I wanted the design to reflect a sense of the beautiful, lyrical English countryside being invaded by Toad’s car, the barge, the caravan and even a train.

“I was determined we weren’t going to use video because I’m not a great believer in video replacing conventional scenery. If you’re using video to represent scenery, why not use painted and built scenery? However, I do believe there is a place for imaginatively and cleverly used video that enhances scenic design. But you need to be sure to regulate it so that it is totally harmonious with the piece.”

CV: Peter McKintosh

Born: Liverpool, 1967
Training: Warwick University, 1987-89; Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, 1989-90
Landmark productions: Honk!, National Theatre (1999); Pericles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, London Roundhouse (2002); The 39 Steps, West End, Broadway and world tour (2005-15); The Chalk Garden, Donmar Warehouse (2008); Crazy for You, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and West End (2011-12); My Night With Reg, Donmar Warehouse and West End (2014-15); Our Country’s Good, National Theatre (2015); On the Town, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (2017); The Wind in the Willows, Theatre Royal Plymouth and London Palladium (2017)
Awards: Olivier for best costume design, Crazy for You (2012)
Agent: Clare Vidal-Hall

The Wind in the Willows is at the London Palladium until September 9; On the Town is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until July 1

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