Young designers to watch in 2017
Nina Dunn, 37
Towards the end of The Mountaintop, history began to unspool. Nina Dunn’s handsome, greyscale projections for the Young Vic flickered through America’s last half-century: everything Martin Luther King missed. Images enveloped the theatre – mugshots and logos, headlines and skylines. As they gained speed, whirred into a blur, your emotions took flight. An era of injustice and more flew by in under a minute.
If 2016 was a quiet year professionally for Dunn – she had her second child – it still yielded some fine work. Alongside Katori Hall’s play, Dunn set trees rustling over No Man’s Land, and brought Caravaggio’s canvases to life in The Seven Acts of Mercy.
A designer with a real feeling for space, as her site-specific work on Alice’s Adventures Underground and Secret Cinema proved, Dunn also has a rare sense of scale. Working in opera has led to a clean and commanding style that is never overbearing. Her New Jersey shipyards were eerie in Arthur Miller’s The Hook; the cartoon landscapes of Usagi Yojimbo, cute and playful.
This year the designer is going back to graphic novels and New York. Dunn leads on Diary of a Teenage Girl at Southwark, then brings the backstreets of Broadway to the same space in Cy Coleman’s Tony-winning musical The Life. Before then, there’s the small matter of remaking Moulin Rouge on the sly somewhere in London.
Georgia Lowe, 33
Above all, Georgia Lowe’s designs are dynamic. She can animate a stage as well as anybody, even with an apparently rather still image. It was Lowe who had Alistair McDowall’s Pomona circle around a storm drain. She also caged the young pups of Anna Jordan’s Yen in a climbing-frame flat.
Lowe had a strong 2016, with debuts upstairs at London’s Royal Court and downstairs at Manchester’s Royal Exchange – a stage that demands designers step up. Her stark industrial set for The Night Watch was filled with soft, pastel costumes.
Lowe has a real understanding of bodies and light. Both came to the fore in Nina Segal’s In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises), with two new parents squished under PAR cans, surrounded by stuff that only spawned more stuff.
Increasingly, you see the influence of her large-scale work outdoors or on-site. Her images impress themselves: lovers bungee together, stretched out of their skin; Frida Kahlos swarm over a funeral pyre; an electric heater is strung up, aglow.
Classics dominate Lowe’s 2017: Othello with Richard Twyman at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory, Death of a Salesman in Northampton with Tim Pigott-Smith and Ian McDiarmid in Faust x2 at the Watermill in Newbury.
Jack Knowles, 29
Less than a decade after leaving the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Jack Knowles is fast establishing himself as one of the most inventive lighting designers around. He’s never one to shirk a challenge, be it the human fish tank of Mike Bartlett’s Game, the conveyor-belt snake of Leo Butler’s Boy or the flooded room of Katie Mitchell’s environmental reading of Happy Days.
Knowles came to the fore as one of Mitchell’s core collaborators, delivering video shows and exacting naturalism. The Forbidden Zone got subway strip lighting and watery shadows. Cleansed contrasted a soft institutional glow with shards of crisp, cold daylight breaking in from outside. In 2017, they return to Kane: 4.48 Psychosis in Hamburg.
Knowles’ work has a delicacy of tone. Kenny Morgan was cast in vintage sepias and The Skriker bathed in electric candlelight, but it’s with Mike Longhurst that he’s really pushing forwards. Carmen Disruption at the Almeida was lit like liquid gold.
There’s deconstruction ahead, work with Ramin Gray (Winter’s Solstice) and Sam Pritchard (Pygmalion), before Headlong’s first musical: Jack Thorne’s Junkyard.
Fly Davis, 30
A tiny toy kitchen on a slow spin cycle announced Fly Davis’ emergence. Her design for I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole was one of the most innovative London’s Gate Theatre had hosted. The piglets hogged the limelight, but the clinical set, scattered with children’s toys, deftly infantilised Steffan Rhodri’s frustrated father.
Since then, Davis has emerged as a bold, conceptual designer, capable of encapsulating a play in a single gesture. Her stripped-back design for A Streetcar Named Desire put Maxine Peake’s Blanche on the green baize of a poker table, the flat being Stanley’s domain. She also dressed Laura Wingfield in an orange jumper to suggest a goldfish in a bowl, another animal trapped in glass.
With debuts on two of Britain’s biggest stages to come, Davis could well break through for good this year. Before then, Shakespeare with two regular collaborators: Max Webster’s The Winter’s Tale in Edinburgh and Ellen McDougall’s Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe.
Jean Chan, 28
Jean Chan provided one of the images of 2016: The Grinning Man’s grin. Blood seeping through a bandage, an open wound from ear to ear, it made the grisliest smile you’ve ever seen. Or rather, not seen. The smartest thing about Louis Maskell’s costume was that it prolonged the big reveal. Chan gave us a striptease towards a smile: a bandit scarf, a bandage and only then, the full maw; gums and gnashers; the skull beneath the skin.
Maskell’s wasn’t the only imaginative outfit. From Julian Bleach’s bitumen-black, droopy-capped jester, to Gloria Onitiri’s towering Georgian dominatrix, Chan pulled together a full-bodied fantasy world.
She’s worked on Dahl adaptations and Complicite’s staging of Zizou Corder’s Lionboy, which wheeled from London’s docks to a Wild West circus. The Linbury Prize winner’s flair showed itself again in the Lyric Hammersmith’s last panto: a dame dressed in austerity chic, with a ballgown made of plastic bags.
Back in Hammersmith next Christmas, and with The Grinning Man plotting a possible London life, Chan’s next project is Plastic with Matthew Dunster at Bath’s Theatre Royal.
Joshua Pharo, 28
Few designers would think to flush a piece located in an immigration detention centre with hot pinks and mint greens. Instead of the drab institutional setting, Joshua Pharo turned the Yard’s musical Removal Men into a space where sex clubs dissolved into the workplace and where working men dissociated into daydreams.
Only six years out of Rose Bruford, Pharo is a designer with real daring. Having worked on the fringe scene with experimentalists Dead Centre and Foxy & Husk, he’s pulled an edgy aesthetic through into more mainstream work. He shot a rusty orange burr through a murderous Julie at Northern Stage last year and turned a baby doll into an emergency siren in the Gate’s newborn drama In the Night Time. Like Lee Curran, Pharo incorporates lighting into the very fabric of a staging – the mark of a close collaborator.
Fast becoming a go-to designer, Pharo will be working with winners of the Genesis, JP Morgan and JMK awards in 2017. Two productions that should give him plenty of room for manoeuvre are How My Light Is Spent at the Royal Exchange and Years of Sunlight at London’s Theatre503.