The British musical revolution of the 1980s and beyond had a number of major players associated with it, including composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, producer Cameron Mackintosh and director Trevor Nunn. But if there’s one thing people know the era for, it is for the sense of spectacle it brought to the musical stage, and one person, above all, was responsible for most of that: theatre designer and artist John Napier.
It is he who designed the junkyard playground in Cats, with gleaming, twinkling cats eyes embedded into its set, and its massive levitating tyre; for the imposing barricades of Les Miserables; for bringing a giant rollerskating track into the theatre for Starlight Express; and for the spectacular portrait of the fall of Saigon in Miss Saigon that culminated in a life-size helicopter landing on stage.
Now a youthful-seeming 71 years old, the veteran designer is still working – he recently helped Trevor Nunn to create the concept for his production of The Wars of the Roses at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, before handing it to another designer, Mark Friend, to execute – but his latest project is, appropriately, a tribute to himself and his own career. He has curated and designed an exhibition called Stages, Beyond the Fourth Wall, that receives its first out-of-town run in the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne this month.
He then hopes to take it on a world tour. “I’m better known in Germany, Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles than I am in London,” he remarks, betraying a little bit of hurt mixed with his own sense of professional pride, “so my intention is to try to remount it afterwards, possibly in Berlin and Tokyo, then the US, by which time it will have gained enough traction to come to London.”
He is, in fact, London-born (in Tottenham), bred and educated (at Hornsey College of Art, followed by the Central School of Art and Design, where he studied theatre design). However, he no longer has a London studio but works out of one in his home in what he calls “the glorious countryside” of the Seven Sisters in East Sussex.
When we meet at London’s Young Vic, we spend an affable hour talking of his career and current state of contentment. “If you’ve done one successful show you’re lucky; if you’ve had two, three, four, five or six it is beyond luck.”
Beyond luck, of course, is sheer talent, though he’s too naturally modest to say so. But though his success has brought him much personal wealth, he says, “I didn’t come into this because of the money, but because I wanted the camaraderie of working in the theatre and I needed an education. Every time you do a play, you need to research the subject thoroughly, so that has led me to reading lots of books. I was a secondary-modern kid with zero understanding of literature, but I became an avid reader.”
He goes on to talk about his own background: “My parents were simple, humble, wonderfully loving folk.” But they knew nothing of art or theatre, “it was only because an art teacher at school called Mr Birchall went to them and insisted I went to Hornsey that I did, or he said he’d have wasted 30 years of teaching!” Napier has dedicated the exhibition to him and to Ralph Koltai, his mentor, who taught him at Central. “It’s only by the spirit of other people seeing something in you that we get fired up – that wealth of generosity is staggering to me.”
When he first went to art college, he says, “My intention was to become a sculptor and visual artist. But during my time at Hornsey, an exhibition was being mounted for Shakespeare’s 400th centenary, and I got involved. We were given tickets to see productions that completely blew my mind. I’d not been to the theatre much, but it made me realise that theatre was about space and organising space – it was like painting and sculpture in 3D.”
Among the shows he saw was a production of Ubu Roi at the Royal Court, designed by David Hockney, “I was spellbound and came out of that thinking, ‘How do I get involved in this?’ It seemed to me that theatre design had moved away from net curtains and sofas and drawing-room situation comedies into something that was more fundamentally to do with the human condition.”
He decided to explore more and went to Central School of Art and Design to study theatre design. “But after my first year, I was told, ‘You are obviously an artist, but not a good theatre designer, so you should leave.’ The other person given that information in my class was Mike Leigh, and both he and I left – he went and studied film at the London Film School and I went and worked on a building site. About two or three weeks later, I got a phone call from Ralph Koltai, who had been a guest teacher in my first year and had just taken over as the head of the department, asking me where I was. I said I’d been told I wasn’t any good and should find other employment. He told me to get back there.”
So he did. And another break occurred: instead of a show of graduates only, all three years were invited to exhibit in an annual exhibition that year to mark the 100th anniversary of the school. “In the first week, a young theatre director called Jonathan Hales saw my work – and offered me the job of head of design at the Pheonix Theatre in Leicester.”
Although he still had another year to go at art college, he went to see Koltai, who told him to take the job and that they would assess him on what he did. Among Napier’s shows was a set for Entertaining Mr Sloane that was based almost entirely on found objects. “It could match the barricades in Les Mis – it was just scaffolding and junk all over. In the play, the characters live next door to a church graveyard and a tip; all we could afford was to go to a tip and strap what we found to scaffolding planks.”
He was developing his own signature style. “I was always interested in the place and how that space embraced an audience, and how you drew an audience to believe in what they were watching.” His exhibition marks this: “The whole notion is that in the theatre you’ve removed the fourth wall, and sometimes you can do things that are marginally abstract, that are more real than the reality.” A case in point are the horse’s heads in Equus, represented just with simple metal frames. His reputation started gathering traction, and soon he was offered work by Bill Gaskill and John Dexter, John Barton and Trevor Nunn.
He worked regularly for the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Among the landmarks of this era were productions of Once in a Lifetime, directed by Nunn, and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, directed by Nunn and Caird. Nunn subsequently asked him to do his first commercial musical, Cats.
“A bit of a titter went around the theatre community that we were doing a show about pussycats, but I was determined to make it as rough as possible and not like a Puss in Boots pantomime. I’m more of a concept and barbed-wire designer; I don’t do flowers and I don’t do really good curtains either – that has always been my downfall!”
Cats, instead, became gritty and imaginative: a giant blown-up junkyard playground for felines to play in. And Napier played his own part in helping the design agency Dewynters come up with its iconic poster design of the cats eyes: “They had brought us in about half a dozen designs for it, but they were, in my opinion, of an old order. Robert Dewynter called me up and said they didn’t know what to do – was there anything about the set they could use? I said, ‘One thing that happens right at the beginning of the show is that out of the darkness these cats’ eyes start shining’, and I told him what they needed to grab was the mystery of that.
“At the next meeting, there it was; but it was passed over. At the end of the meeting, I told them and put it on the easel; it was the most iconic poster I’d ever seen, even more than Equus. What Dewynters did so brilliantly was to put the dancers in the eyes.”
In many ways, Cats prefigured the current fashion for immersive design; even more so did Starlight Express, which installed a full-size race track around the auditorium. “Trevor (Nunn) said that if we did something with trains they had to be in motion. And I realised they couldn’t just go around in circles, but had to go somewhere to make it exciting and dynamic. And Arlene Phillips choreographed them on rollerskates, which was phenomenal.”
Then came Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, and a new, heightened reality took over musical theatre. Both of these shows have recently been restaged in new productions by Cameron Mackintosh, on Broadway and in the West End respectively, not using Napier’s original designs. How does he feel about that? “I say nothing. I stay aloof and private. I’m thankful that I was able to do them in the first place and be the original author.”
Being an author, he points out, has given him a steady stream of lucrative royalties. “I cannot complain. The poor actors – once their contracts are over, they’re on to the next job and don’t earn more from the show. But I’ve had more than 30 years of Cats and Les Miserables, and that has allowed me to put this exhibition on and to have time for myself now.”
What’s the rudest criticism he’s ever had? “One director said that what I did was mechanical garbage. But I can’t tell you what a joy it has been – how did I get to be so lucky, and work with the number of people I’ve worked with?”
John Napier: Stages, Beyond the Fourth Wall is at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne  from November 29 until January 31, 2016