Rising designer Frankie Bradshaw has created deeply atmospheric onstage worlds for shows such as Orca and Sweat. She tells Matt Trueman how a meticulous approach allows her designs to embody the essence of a script
Sometimes you could swear a set design had a smell. Frankie Bradshaw’s should, by rights, stink. They’re so richly detailed, so pungently atmospheric, they play tricks on the nose.
Her barnacle-studded rotting seaside pier gave Matt Grinter’s Orca its real whiff of the sea: salty enough to smack at your lips. Shingle and seaweed crunched and squelched underfoot. There were the mouldy curtains draped in Rooster Byron’s caravan at the Watermill, curdling the green and pleasant woodland air of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. In Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, a recent Donmar smash due a West End transfer in June, her rust-encrusted factory girders made the air seem arid and stale, suggesting the sort of dry heat that pricks at your skin and leaves a lingering hint of old body odour behind – the scent of human industry in a play about America’s industrial decline.
Few young designers muster such a sharp sense of place. “I’m probably hideously old-fashioned,” Bradshaw almost apologises with a self-effacing laugh. At 27, not yet five years out of drama school, she is building a reputation as an artist who can bring stages to life. Her style puts her at odds with her peers and prevailing norms. “A lot of designers are working in very beautiful, very minimal ways at the moment, and there have been a few shows where I’ve loved doing that, but often, more detailed worlds come more instinctively to me.”
Bradshaw’s neither as old-hat nor off-piste as she likes to joke. “It’s not like I’m designing living-room sets,” she reiterates, sitting on a sofa surrounded by Cass Art bags. In fact, her detailed designs are as much distillations as most minimalist sets – only instead of embodying the essence of a script, some symbol that might stand for the whole, they tend to express the essence of a place. “I’m often making quite poetic worlds, just in a really fulsome way,” she explains. “I like to boil an environment down to its purest composite parts and find what feels most visceral about them.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
A First World Problem by Milly Thomas at Theatre503, London.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s okay to fail sometimes.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Probably the natural world.
If you hadn’t been a stage designer, what would you have been?
A gardener – my friends will laugh because I let a lot of plants die.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
For Bradshaw, place is more felt than seen; something you step into, not something you scrutinise from afar. If her stages are expressionistic, not realistic, that’s why. She slotted Sweat – set in a bar – into a run-down, disused steel factory. “The factory felt like an extra character in the script – almost the ghost that haunts the narrative,” she explains. “I wanted the bar to pop out of that space like a kind of memory.”
It was mightily effective but, for Bradshaw, expressionism has to be rooted in veracity. “I’m a real fan of a research trip,” she says. For Assata Taught Me, Kalungi Ssebandeke’s play about the Cuban exile of former Black Panther Assata Shakur, she and director Lynette Linton travelled to Havana and cooked up a space that caught its crumbling grandeur and its colourful contradictions: Spanish baroque architecture, jaded Americana and the poverty of a constrained communist system.
Sweat took the pair to Reading, Pennsylvania – rust-belt America. Nottage’s play is set in a real-life bar there, Mike’s Tavern. “We stuck our heads in” – she starts to laugh – “and this guy was like: ‘What are you two girls doing here? Are you doing Sweat the play?’ ”
They took a tour of a former factory, Bethlehem Steel, led by a woman whose family worked there for three generations. “She welled up during the tour. She does that tour every day, but she still really feels for that place. You could see how gutted she was, but also how proud of her history.” See something like that for yourself, Bradshaw says, and you want to honour it in your art. “It showed me just how important this play is, how necessary it is to understand the decline of these industries in America as they’re being exploited by Donald Trump.”
Doing that involves detail and detail itself requires skilled scenic artists. Bradshaw says she is indebted to the set painters and prop makers that bring her designs to fruition. “They really make or break your show,” she says, acknowledging collaborators that are all too often overlooked. She credits Richard Nutbourne with making her early work sing. “A lot of the time, it takes real alchemy. Paint is chemistry as well as artistry, so you can have a really brilliant eye, but you have to have that craft as well.”
Finding both can be a bit of a big ask – and increasingly so. “I think it’s an art form that is dying out a little bit – what with the disappearance of so many paint frames across the country.” She pauses a moment, sudden reflective. “It’s really sad. We should be clinging on to them as much as we can.”
Bradshaw has felt the benefits on her latest project, an adaptation of David Almond’s hit young adult novel Skellig, about a mysterious, bird-like, angelic creature. Nottingham Playhouse still has its own fully functioning production department, which has broadened the horizons of Bradshaw’s design.
As well as a “totally bespoke, motorised” set of wings constructed on site, it has delivered a design that might have posed problems elsewhere – “a gigantic, human-sized bird’s nest built out of real branches”. The team got lucky, she admits. “Through some bizarre, serendipitous twist of fate, one of the chippies in Nottingham’s workshop happens to be the overseer of a nearby forest. He said: ‘Chop some of ours down.’ ”
‘Paint is chemistry as well as artistry: you can have a brilliant eye, but you need craft as well’
This is the crux of Bradshaw’s work: she embraces nature on stage. There’s a fundamental theatricality in that – a whiff of impossibility in bringing the outdoors inside. It is also what gives her stages their ‘smell’. From Orca to Jerusalem, Skellig to Sweat, her sets seem to have an organic quality. They are all but alive: wood rots, metal rusts, mould and mildew dig in.
For a city girl – “a Londoner born and bred” – this is somewhat surprising. “I’ve always had a real yearning for the countryside and the beauty that lies in the natural world, and a lot of that feeds into my designs.” Her father was an architect, specialising in sustainability and the preservation of old buildings, offsetting the effects of nature taking hold. “That’s clearly breathed into my practice as well.”
Having considered following in his footsteps, Bradshaw took a foundation course in fine art – a fact that explains her work’s painterly quality – but switched, on a whim, to theatre design. Enrolling at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts for three years, she left as a Linbury Prize finalist with an assisting gig lined up with Christopher Oram – a big, and visible, influence on her work. “I didn’t really have enough to say as a solo artistic voice,” she recalls. “I quickly realised I’d be super-lonely.”
She has formed ongoing collaborations with Linton as well as Skellig director Lisa Blair, both of whom she praises highly: young female directors on the up.
Bradshaw says she has “ended up gravitating towards female directors”, albeit not consciously, preferring what she sees as a more “holistic approach”, open to genuine collaborative responses.
“That’s not to say I’ve not had fruitful collaborations with men,” she stresses, citing John Haidar in particular. “But male directors can be quite heavy-handed at times. They often come with a pre-decided vision.” For a designer as distinctive and delicate as Bradshaw, that’s deadly.
Born: London, 1992
Training: Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts
Landmark productions: Adding Machine, Finborough Theatre, London (2016); Orca, Southwark Playhouse, London (2016); Assata Taught Me, Gate Theatre, London (2017); Sweat, Donmar Warehouse, London (2019)
Awards: Off West End award for Adding Machine, Finborough Theatre, 2016; Jerwood Young Designer award, Gate Theatre (2017)
Agent: Jasmine Daines Pilgrem, Lisa Richards Agency