Tony award winner Nigel Hook: ‘Traditional pantomime elements and stage tricks. I love all that’
The Tony award-winning designer of The Play That Goes Wrong, tells Ollie Cole that “there’s no better way to hone your craft than to keep doing it”
From its humble beginnings above an Islington pub, The Play That Goes Wrong has become a soaring hit around the world, and a significant part of its success is down to a Welshman who was one of the few Brits to be honoured at 2017’s Tony Awards.
Mischief Theatre’s barnstorming farce is now in its fourth year at the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End and is back on the road around the UK, has reached Australia, Israel and China among others, and is a smash on Broadway.
The set, a seemingly dusty old-style English manor house, is undoubtedly one of the stars of a show that, in the words of New York Times critic Ben Brantley, is “devoted entirely to destroying itself before your eyes”.
So convincing is the total destruction in front of the audience’s eyes that show, which is running at the Lyceum Theater, won its Tony for best scenic design in a play.
The man who picked up the award on the night was Nigel Hook, a vastly experienced designer from South Wales, who was responsible for the “self-immolating set” – Brantley again – which returns to its pristine state for the next show.
“I didn’t expect to have to take part in the ceremony at all,” he said of his Tony win. “In fact, I’d slipped off my shoes and got myself comfortable.” Looking back he could hardly believe it. “I’d never actually thought I was going to be doing this, working on Broadway or even the West End.”
The Pontypool-born designer joined the play’s creative team in 2014, following its pub theatre and fringe runs. The show’s production manager Digby Robinson got in touch, after they had worked together years earlier. “Though I hadn’t worked with him for around 20 years, he decided that this was the job for me,” he says.
The team showed Hook the initial ideas for their design on a piece of cardboard, which he still has. “It was initially just the three sides of the set; the fireplace, the door, and the window. The play happened in 45 minutes, which they’d worked out themselves.”
Nigel admits being in awe of what they’d taken to the fringe. “I remember watching the video of it and just being amazed by how wonderfully killer it was.”
Hook continues: “I did a collage piece and set off to see them, and they asked me if I could actually design it, because the second half of the play needed the falling floor and bits like the windows falling out.”
The designer had paid his dues before arriving in the West End and puts a lot of his success in the industry down to the support and training he received back in Wales. His involvement with theatre started at Croesyceiliog grammar school, which put on shows including My Fair Lady, Camelot, Oklahoma! and Oliver!.
His interest in the art form was sparked while he was playing one of Fagin’s Boys in Oliver!, as the experience went beyond simply acting. “It was kind of a mix and match, you just joined in and did everything”. He remembers watching his art teacher, Mr Jacobs, painting a set one day. “I was absolutely fascinated by it,” he says.
Hook’s training as a designer started in earnest at Gwent Young People’s Theatre, which no longer exists. “It’s a great sadness,” he says. “The amount of teaching we were given without really knowing we were being taught.” He continued to appear on stage at the urging of his teachers, though not from his fellow actors. “I had this ability to make it look like the other people had forgotten their lines instead of me,” he recalls, “so I wasn’t the actors’ favourite.”
Raised in Cwmbran, Nigel went to Trinity College, Carmarthen to train as a teacher in art and drama, and went on to study design at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. After graduating, Hook found set design work but had to move all around Britain from Perth in Scotland to Elephant and Castle in south London. “You tend to get passed around then to all the directors you meet,” he says. “There’s no better way to hone your craft than to keep doing it.”
Q&A: Nigel Hook
What was your first paid job in the theatre?
I worked at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama as a technician after my graduation thanks to Elizabeth Friendship, and worked behind the bar at Cardiff’s New Theatre to keep me going.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a projectionist in the cinema, which I’d started as a summer job as a cleaner in Cwmbran. It had a great sound system though, so I’d put records on top whack when I cleaned the place.
What is your next job?
I’m working in Sweden on the musical Something’s Rotten.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
How to present and construct an invoice, organise your taxes and save money for them. It’s advice that still stands.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
So many, but Elizabeth Friendship at the RWCMD is the one. She’s still the person in the back of my mind if I’m trying to get away with something, I think: ‘Well, would Elizabeth allow that?’
What is your advice for others wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Do the work. I’ve been a bit like a pinball bouncing around but I find myself just doing stuff. You don’t need the tradition in your family to be there, if you have the desire to be a part of it then just go along and get involved.
If you hadn’t been a set designer, what would you have done?
I hope I would have stuck to teaching art and drama in the way I had been taught. I have cherished memories of staff and friends in everywhere I’ve trained.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I have all the general stage superstitions, ‘that play’ and all that… My own tradition though is that I visit the set just before the first night, and spit at it and tell it to get on with it.
During his 37 years in set design, he has worked at home and around the world on plays, musicals and operas. He has designed the sets for 11 West End shows – including Ferry Cross the Mersey at the Lyric theatre in 1996 followed by The Boys in the Band at the Aldwych a year later, and Steptoe and Son almost a decade on.
In Sweden he designed Wermland Opera productions Crazy for You, Shrek the Musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and, most recently, Something Rotten. “I’ve sung and danced on Broadway and the West End,” he says, before adding with a smile: “Thankfully nobody was watching or listening.”
Hook has designed more than 200 productions in the UK, and his passion for research and old stagecraft has never wavered. Apart from the falling floor in The Play That Goes Wrong, which he’d never had to tackle before, the spinning bookcases and secret doors “are all traditional pantomime elements and stage tricks. I love all that”.
The team behind The Play That Goes Wrong didn’t take on board all of his suggestions, however. “Like, I wanted at least one sheet of wallpaper to be on upside down but they thought that would be too distracting,” he says.
The show’s constant destruction and rebuilding is made possible by the meticulous timing and running of the whole show. “They were doing some quite dangerous things,” says Hook of the original fringe play, “but the acting is like clockwork and timed to the millisecond”.
While he has worked on other projects, Hook continues to develop Mischief Theatre’s show and believes that part of its longevity comes from how the different productions feed information to each other.
“The set you see at the Duchess now, there’s not much left that’s original to that. One of the important things is that there are additional things on Broadway, which are gradually being fed back elsewhere.”
He continues: “We should always grow on it. If we produced what we originally did every time there wouldn’t be any point in the audience going back.”
Hook talks about his work as “being paid to do my hobby” and his playful spirit can be seen in some of his own hidden jokes worked into the set of The Play That Goes Wrong all over the world.
The initials HH are planted in various parts of the design for Haversham House and he introduced even more after sitting behind a father and son at the Duchess who were trying to count them all in the interval.
“My initials are in the wallpaper and a couple of books too,” he adds.
He recently discovered that Greg Tannahill, one of the original company, was trying to find all those hidden initials. “I was able to tell him that: ‘Nope, there’s still some you haven’t found’.”
The Welshman takes no prisoners when he’s in an audience himself, admitting to walking out of productions that he doesn’t feel are sincere. “If it doesn’t feel like everybody’s with it, I just go. I’ve probably missed the best bits of everything, but I’d just rather go and have a doughnut.”
At the end of our conversation, he returns to an issue close to his heart, that of the need to support the next generation of creatives. “The theme of the Tony Awards last year was education and training,” he says. “I really must stress the importance of that in all fields of theatre, and we should be careful that that training never disappears.”
CV: Nigel Hook
Training: Trinity College, Carmarthen; Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama; Goldsmiths College
• Tony award for best scenic design in a play (2017)
• Drama Desk award for outstanding set design (2017)
• The Play That Goes Wrong, West End (2014-present)
• Wermland Opera, Sweden (2011-present)
• THARK at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre (2016)
• Dial M For Murder at Vienna English Theatre (2014)