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Simon Higlett: ‘You have to persuade people to build things they don’t want to’

Simon Higlett Simon Higlett

Not all rookie set designers struggle to earn a living. After he’d graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art in 1982 with a degree in scenic design, Simon Higlett walked straight into a job assisting Terry Parsons at the London Palladium.

The show was Singin’ in the Rain, starring Tommy Steele, and Higlett says it put him off musicals for a very long time. But as set designers’ early careers go, it was about as cushy as it gets.

“I missed out on the usual route of doing umpteen fringe shows at the same time in order to scrape a living together,” he says. “I couldn’t have been luckier.”

At Woodlands school in Coventry, where he grew up, Higlett originally wanted to be a dentist but was also quite artistic. When someone asked him to design a school play “it was like someone switching a light on in my head,” he says. The combination of artistic challenge and problem-solving was irresistible. He was also able to do his work experience at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, in 1976, which finally kicked dentistry into touch.

Frances McNamee, Leah Whitaker, Michelle Terry and Flora Spencer-Longhurst in Love’s Labour’s Won in 2014. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Frances McNamee, Leah Whitaker, Michelle Terry and Flora Spencer-Longhurst in Love’s Labour’s Won in 2014. Photo: Tristram Kenton

After the Palladium, Higlett worked for Tim Goodchild, another top West End designer, for the next two years. “Tim was so busy at the time that he started to pass shows over to me, which gave me an extraordinary degree of freedom at an early stage in my career. After two years with Tim, I was ready to branch out on my own.”

He went to Theatr Clwyd in North Wales as a fully fledged, albeit inexperienced, set designer in 1984, doing six plays back to back. It was a baptism of fire in one way, and a short cut to being his own man in another.

Birmingham Rep under Jonathan Church was another significant stepping stone for Higlett, as well as Chichester. When Church left Birmingham to take over Chichester in 2005 it was inevitable their paths would cross. It turned out to be sooner rather than later and they did a revival – or rather a reinvention – of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby there in 2006.

“I love working in the round and Chichester is almost in the round,” he says. “I love that awareness of being in a theatre and seeing other members of the audience across the stage.”

Simon Higlett’s original set model for Love's Labour's Won. Photo: Simon HIglett
Simon Higlett’s original set model for Love’s Labour’s Won. Photo: Simon HIglett

Despite Higlett’s contention that Chichester “isn’t really designed for scenery”, he and Church have created some remarkable productions together, including Amadeus, Nicholas Nickleby and, 25 years after Higlett’s London Palladium debut, Singin’ in the Rain.

Only this time he did it his way, redefining all previous versions. “It is always a problem when you’re expected to reproduce a film on stage,” he says. “So I set the whole thing on a Hollywood studio backlot. Instead of a real taxi on stage, you can just use a cardboard prop because it’s all make-believe anyway, and when Don Lockwood dances in the rain, he switches on the rain himself. There is no pretence that it’s real rain, and that way the audience is in on the joke.”

Still doing the rounds, this “constantly fizzing production”, as one critic described it, is currently delighting audiences in Sydney.


Q&A: Simon Higlett

What was your first professional theatre job? Assistant to Terry Parsons on Singin’ in the Rain.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? How hard you have to work to make a living.

Who or what was your biggest influence? Eric Flitcroft, my art teacher at Woodlands school, who kept in touch with me until he died.

If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have been? Some kind of engineer. Stage design and engineering are closely related.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Apart from loathing first nights, no.

Last year, Higlett also reinvented Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on a much reduced budget for West Yorkshire Playhouse, in which he used video design to simulate the aerial flight of the famous car. The production garnered five-star reviews.

In 2014, Higlett made his RSC main house debut with Love’s Labour’s Won, a clever amalgam of two Shakespeare comedies, Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost, directed by Christopher Luscombe, and described by the Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish as “the most blissfully entertaining and emotionally involving RSC offering I’ve seen in ages.”

Happily for the gentlefolk of Chichester, this acclaimed double bill is coming to the Festival Theatre on Saturday, for a short run, before going on to Manchester Opera House and a three-month West End transfer in December.

In addition to the risky but successful decision to set one play on the eve of the First World War, and the other after it has finished, the production is chiefly distinguished by Higlett’s ravishing country house design, based on a real stately home, Charlecote Park, just outside Stratford upon Avon – “the perfect setting for what we wanted to do” – which used up the entire stage in Stratford’s main house, and invited comparisons with the drawing-room set in TV’s Downton Abbey.

Joshua McGuire and company in Amadeus in 2014. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Joshua McGuire and company in Amadeus in 2014. Photo: Manuel Harlan

For this, Higlett created a highly detailed model box, complete with scaled-down pieces of antique furniture and plasticine characters. “I wanted all the makers at Stratford to be able to refer to the model box,” he explains. “I think it is one of the most successful translations I’ve ever witnessed, from model box to reality on stage.”

Currently Higlett is working on a Chichester Youth Theatre production of Peter Pan, in which the perennial problem of characters in flight will be solved by puppets on extended poles; a restaging of the Mozart opera The Marriage of Figaro for Scottish Opera; and the UK premiere of the American musical Big, an adaptation of the classic 1988 Tom Hanks film of the same name, which will open at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, on November 5.

Big was first produced on Broadway in 1996 and has subsequently enjoyed many provincial revivals and amateur productions in the US. Higlett, who describes it as “a difficult show to pull off”, says he will be using a rotating video wall to facilitate the many scene changes. Producer Michael Rose hopes to bring it into London but a lot will depend on its provincial reception.

Higlett's set model for Amadeus
Higlett’s set model for Amadeus

Like any other busy theatre creative, Higlett finds striking a work-life balance endlessly problematic. “Having an understanding partner is half the battle,” he says ruefully. “I do fewer shows than I used to but they’ve got bigger and more complicated. Working 16-hour days isn’t unusual. I’ve got a studio at home with no door on it, so I’m not sealed off from the family.”

In addition to the workload, as a successful and established stage designer, he is in constant receipt of approaches from stage and art school design graduates in need of employment. “I’ve had the same two or three assistants for some time now, waiting to move on to next stage. But it is definitely harder to move on now. I tell them to keep bothering directors and agents.

“Meeting directors is the tricky thing. If you can draw it helps, but to be successful in this game is 85% about communication. You have to be able to persuade people to build things they don’t really want to. You must also know your own mind and feel comfortable being part of a team. I never try to put people off doing it, but I do stress that if they really, really want to succeed, they have to be prepared to work really hard and stick at it.”

CV: Simon Higlett

Born: 1959, Coventry
Training: Wimbledon School of Art; Slade School of Fine Art
Career highlights: Elizabeth Rex, Birmingham Rep, 2002, Pygmalion, Old Vic, 2008, Singer; A Russian in the Woods; Thomas More – all at Royal Shakespeare Company, 2002, To Kill a Mockingbird, West Yorkshire Playhouse, 2006, Wonderful Town, the Lowry, 2012, Lady Windermere’s Fan, US production, 2006, Singin’ in the Rain, Chichester Festival Theatre and tour, 2011, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, WYP, 2015, Love’s Labour’s Won, RSC, 2014, Hobson’s Choice, Chichester and West End, 2016
Agent: Stella Richards Management

Much Ado About Nothing (or Love’s Labour’s Won) and Love’s Labour’s Lost are at the Chichester Festival Theatre from September 24-October 29; Manchester Opera House from November 23-December 3; Theatre Royal Haymarket, London from December 9-March 18, 2017 

Big opens at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth on November 5

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