When The Stage noted in 1986 that “at the moment the West End owes more to the engineering skills of Mike Barnett than to the talent of any other individual,” his name was likely unknown to most theatregoers.
But they would have been familiar with his innovative, show-stealing mechanical effects that helped revolutionise theatre technology in ever more sophisticated and daring designs. Countless others would have seen the results of his behind-the-scenes work as the Olympic logo was elevated in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 games.
A former industrial engineer who had worked on diesel engines and diggers, Barnett moved into theatre in the late 1960s before working with Telestage to design the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage elevator.
As a freelance from 1977, he began to acquire an international reputation and moved from theatre infrastructure to production. An early triumph was his putting into locomotion the six-ton, shape-shifting steel bridge that provided the defining memory of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express at the Apollo Victoria in 1984.
The following year, Barnett gave vivid kinetic life to William Dudley’s rolling, pitching, heaving and falling ship’s hull in Mutiny! at the Piccadilly Theatre and, indelibly, to John Napier’s huge double revolve and gargantuan, rising barricade trucks in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s original Barbican run of Les Misérables.
He also supported Maria Bjornson’s lavish, long-lived designs for The Phantom of the Opera with its gasp-inducing subterranean boat and falling chandelier at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1986.
The same year, he engineered, for Napier, the floating head on to which Laurence Olivier’s face was projected in Dave Clark’s Time at the Dominion Theatre, helped deliver the revolving and tilting game board for Chess at the Prince Edward Theatre and was voted the Association of British Theatre Technicians’ technician of the year.
In 1989, again for Napier, Barnett gave flight to Miss Saigon’s helicopter at Theatre Royal Drury Lane with Barry Steele’s assistance. He also provided Ralph Koltai’s industrial, car gearbox-inspired vision of Metropolis at the Piccadilly Theatre.
Later theatre credits included attention-grabbing moments in Sunset Boulevard (Adelphi Theatre, 1993), the 1994 London Palladium revival of Oliver! and Mary Poppins (Prince Edward Theatre, 2004). Away from theatre, Barnett worked with rock group U2 and regularly with Las Vegas celebrity magicians Siegfried and Roy.
Michael Barnett was born on November 24, 1934. He was awarded an MBE in 2006 for services to theatre. He died on October 14, 2019, aged 84.