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Obituary: Stephen Doncaster – ‘influential and inspiring theatre designer’

Theatre designer Stephen Doncaster circa 1980 Theatre designer Stephen Doncaster circa 1980

Stephen Doncaster’s influence on British theatre design extended beyond his admired tenures in Pitlochry and Nottingham, and at the Royal Court in London and Royal Exchange, Manchester.

In 1965, he was a leading figure in setting up the theatre design course at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University). Remaining at its helm until 1979, he inspired successive intakes of students and established the course’s reputation for innovation.

Doncaster had been working at the city’s Playhouse Theatre since the early 1960s, variously providing an evocative, leaf-laden setting for Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a grimy, lived-in backstage for John Osborne’s The Entertainer, and darkly grotesque depictions of the seven deadly sins for Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

Born in Sheffield, the son of Quaker parents – his father a steelworks owner, his mother a teacher – he studied fashion at the Reimann School of Art and Design in London.

A conscientious objector, he spent the war working for a Quaker refugee committee before joining the stage design course at the Old Vic Theatre School (where he was influenced by Michel Saint-Denis and Margaret Harris) at the end of hostilities. On graduating, he remained to teach costume cutting and as assistant director of the school’s technical courses.

He began to make his mark at the Embassy Theatre, Swiss Cottage, where early designs included William Douglas-Home’s period piece The Embassy (1952) and Hugh Evans’ Five Philadelphia Physicians (1953).

After a spell making costumes for the Royal Shakespeare Company, in 1956 he designed the first London revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Royal Court, returning to Sloane Square for the premiere of Osborne’s Epitaph for George Dillon, which transferred to the Comedy Theatre and gave him his Broadway debut in 1958. Other Court credits included NF Simpson’s One Way Pendulum (1959) and Nigel Dennis’ August for the People, starring Rex Harrison (1961). In 1958 he also designed five productions for the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, with whom he went on to enjoy a substantial relationship. With a memorably witty eye for detail, he designed a tartan – for the fictional Macsycophant clan – for its 1962 staging of Charles Macklin’s Man of the World.

At the Arts Theatre, he designed the two-hander double-bill of Tennessee Williams’ This Property Is Condemned and Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story in 1960, and Fred Watson’s Infanticide in the House of Fred Ginger, produced by the RSC, in 1962.

In 1968, he was guest designer at the Glasgow Citizens and spent a decade with the Royal Exchange from its opening season to his retirement in 1987. Notable designs in Manchester included Noel Coward’s Present Laughter (1977), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1985) and costumes for Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, which transferred to Broadway in 1980.

His last West End venture was Maurice Hennequin and Pierre Veber’s Court in the Act! at the Phoenix Theatre in 1986.

A short TV career in the first half of the 1960s included an episode of The Avengers, three instalments of ITV’s Play of the Week, the sci-fi thriller Undermind and military drama Redcap.

Stephen Doncaster was born on May 11, 1919, and died on February 13, aged 98.

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