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Mark Shenton’s top 10 UK-based theatre set designers

Bunny Christie's set for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was also a major part of the show's success. Photo: Brinkoff/Moegenburg
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Set design used to be simply referred to as decor. It was not much more than the framework and dressing that the play was housed in. These days design is part of the intricate language of storytelling that the theatre employs, and is frequently called to make its own statements. A set designer is part of the design team employed to serve the show’s visual and aural impact that will also, of course, include lighting, sound and – increasingly – video. Here are my 10 favourite UK-based theatre designers working today…

1. Bunny Christie

The Red Barn. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The most astonishing theatre design of 2016 was the environment provided by Bunny Christie for The Red Barn at the National Theatre, which as Dominic Cavendish put it in his Daily Telegraph review, “discloses a range of beautifully realised period interiors (and a whirling snowstorm too) with a cinematic fluidity that seems to defy logistical possibility; black screens serve as grand apertures, narrowing in on telling visuals or widening out, tracking across.” Her electronic cube of a set for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was also a major part of that National Theatre show’s success, too.

2. Christopher Oram

Forest Whitaker and Frank Wood in Hughie. Photo: Marc Brenner
Forest Whitaker and Frank Wood in Hughie. Photo: Marc Brenner

The other most beautiful set I saw last year was Christopher Oram’s for Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie on Broadway. As I put it in my review for The Stage, “A man wanders into a down-at-heel residential hotel in New York, green neon flickering outside; Christopher Oram’s stunningly evocative design makes the stage look like an Edward Hopper painting.” Working most often with his life as well as professional partner Michael Grandage, he creates the world of each play that always feels both intricately specific but also full of metaphorical weight.

3. Bob Crowley

A scene from An American in Paris. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Designer of one of the most heartstoppingly beautiful productions I’ve ever seen in the National’s 1993 production of Carousel, Bob Crowley is a stunning artist whose game-changing work has also seen him recently represented in London by the stunningly evocative The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York’s and the musical Once that transferred from Broadway to the West End. He’s currently represented by the gorgeous An American in Paris, where the set appears as airborne as the dancers.

4. Es Devlin

The Nether, for which Es Devlin won the 2015 Olivier award for best set design. Photo: Johan Persson.

Few designers seem to make bigger visual statements than Es Devlin, whose sense of the epic and large-scale was demonstrated when she designed the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. She sometimes takes your breath away, though, with far simpler devices, like her astonishing set for The Nether (at the Royal Court in 2014, then the West End). In the New Yorker, Andrew O’Hagan wrote, “Devlin’s set was a revelation, a blend of the concrete and the ethereal that perfectly expressed the play’s underlying themes. At one point, a detective asks whether what we do in our imagination isn’t, in a sense, also real, and Devlin’s set enlarged on that question. It was a glass box divided into two levels, within which, sometimes via video projection, appeared brief suggestions from an earlier time – an Edwardian bed, a fireplace, a rocking horse, and sunlit poplar trees so beautiful as to be almost kitsch (in the time of the play, trees no longer exist). The set seemed to suggest the paedophiles’ minds – an aqueous world in which fantasies were never entirely solid, yet never completely without foundation, either – and to raise the question whether we are ever safe from the ghastliest of thoughts.” Yet all of this was achieved, as Devlin told O’Hagan in an interview, from “cheap stretched mirror and scratched Perspex. But it planted a seed of doubt in the audience’s mind.”

5. Anna Fleischle

Hangmen at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Another designer who creates a very specific, very recognisable world yet puts a spin on it that manages to summon reality and also transcend it is Anna Fleischle. As Susannah Clapp put it in her review of Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen at the Royal Court in 2015, “Anna Fleischle’s extraordinary design moves from starkness to the cluttered fug of a pub recognisable to anyone over 40.” More recently, her “grid-based, fluid set wittily contrasts constraint and exuberance,” said The Observer’s Clare Brennan for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.

6. Tim Hatley

Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. Photo: Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Currently represented in the West End by the shimmering, cinematically driven Dreamgirls at the Savoy, Tim Hatley is a wizard at large-scaled musicals. His portfolio also included The Bodyguard, Spamalot and Shrek the Musical, making them witty as well as functional. But he’s also brilliantly capable at plays like Ghosts (Almeida), Temple (Donmar Warehouse) and Travesties (Menier) to create fully realised worlds for them.

7. Mark Thompson

Douglas Hodge in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which closed for three performances because of power cuts
Douglas Hodge in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which closed for three performances because of power cuts

Another genius for plays as well as musicals, Mark Thompson’s work has stretched from the instant sunshine world of Mamma Mia! and the meticulous placing of period comedy in One Man, Two Guvnors to the all-out gob-smacking spectacle of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (in its original Drury Lane incarnation; he’s toned it down a bit for the current Broadway incarnation). He also works regularly in opera.

8. Robert Jones

Claire Machin, Sophie Louise Dann, Joanna Riding, Claire Moore and Debbie Chazen in The Girls at Phoenix Theatre, London. Photo: Matt Crockett, Dewynters

The quietly unassuming Rob Jones is one of the nicest people in the business – and also one of the most talented. His gorgeous work is currently illuminating The Girls at the Phoenix, of which Michael Billington said in his review for The Guardian, “Robert Jones’s design, with its mountain of kitchen cabinets, imaginatively frames a show whose feelgood conclusion is genuinely earned rather than arbitrarily imposed.”

9. Soutra Gilmour

Richard Fleeshman in Urinetown. Photo: Johan Persson

Creating a unique and distinctive world for each show she designs, Soutra Gilmour’s work makes a statement – from the boxing ring tension of Bull at the Young Vic (transferred from Sheffield) to the iron-girder framework of Urinetown (St James and West End’s Apollo), of which Time Out’s Daisy Bowie-Sell said that her “hulking designs are the height of sewer chic”. Of her work for The Duchess of Malfi at the Old Vic in 2012, the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer said, “Gilmour’s stunning design conjures up a dark Renaissance palace of gilded staircases, vertiginous pillars and flickering candlelight.”

10. Peter McKintosh

Lenny Henry in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse, London. Photo: Helen Maybanks
Lenny Henry in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse, London. Photo: Helen Maybanks

The inventively witty Peter McKintosh does great service at theatres large and small all over the country, turning into one of our most prolific and trusted designers in the process. He created a splashy technicolor arch to perfectly frame Guys and Dolls in the West End last year, and a similar framing device brilliantly surrounds The Wind in the Willows transferring to the Palladium this summer. He has also overseen the transformation of the Donmar into a speakeasy for the current The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

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