Martin Morley

A Life in Theatre & Television Design

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Musings of a Jobbing Designer

Interlude, Summer 1969: prop making with Scottish Opera

and Liverpool Playhouse

March or April 1969 found me in Glasgow as assistant prop maker with Scottish opera. It was just a temporary job for the Summer season. The company was at a stage in its development when it was doing very fine work but was still small enough for everyone to know each other and I quickly felt part of a community. From the basement workshop where I worked I could hear the rehearsals going on above me and it was a wonderful experience. My brief was very simple: There was a month’s preparation for the season and my task primarily, was to make all the vegetable stock for the village shop for a revival of Britten’s ‘Albert Herring’, and to help where necessary on making sure the props for the other productions were ready and also help touching up the sets as they came out of storage. I then went on tour with the company and looked after the props in the OP wings during the performances. I found it an excellent way to see first rate artists at work and terrific way to be introduced to opera which I knew very little about and being paid (£18pw) for the privilege.

From a design point of view the productions were elegant and practical, ‘Cosi fan Tutte’, designed by John Stoddart made very simple scenic devices witty and revealing. ‘Albert Herring’ was cosy and the production as a whole was a joy. Anthony Besch was the original director of both productions and had been bought back to rehearse the revivals and it really paid off. His attention to detail was extraordinary and I saw him checking measurements from the plan to see that the set was exactly as in the original, and he personally double checked against production photographs that the set dressings were in order.After the restrictions of two weekly rep it was most refreshing to work on a more generous scale. Still, by today’s standards the technology was still firmly in the 19th century.

Liverpool Playhouse 1969 - 1972

I found my feet at the Liverpool Playhouse. I went there at the end of 1969, first as assistant designer to John Page and then as Head of Design after John left at the beginning of 1970. It was a three weekly rep mounting about 15 productions a year. The design department consisted of me, an assistant designer, a scenic artist, and two carpenters. The repertoire was very broad, ranging from Shakespeare to Bond and a smattering of West End hits. Antony (Dick) Tuckey was the Artistic Director and Barry Kyle his associate, followed by Andrew Dallmeyer. Between them we did a number of productions which I look back on with great affection. Outstanding in my memory were ‘The Days of the Commune’, ‘The National Health’,O! What a Lovely War’,The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘The Crucible’

Like most designers at the time I got this job by responding to and advert in ‘The Stage’. The interview was in London with Antony (Dick) Tuckey, and John Page. The upshot was that I was offered a years contract renewable in July if I was satisfactory and was asked to design the opening show of the season: Bill Naughtons ‘Spring and Port Wine’. That was risky on their part because all they had seen of my work was what was in my portfolio. Resident design posts were not a rarity then and it was a time of expansion in the arts This did not mean good salaries but there were many opportunities to work for first rate companies over a period of time. There was also a large amount of upgrading of the theatre infrastructure going on as historic ‘reps’ were trying to match the standard that was commonplace in continental Europe. The Liverpool Playhouse was no exception. About a year before the stage had been modernised with a complete counterweight system and an adjacent workshop that replicated the stage in area. Included was a large stage truck on which a complete set could be pre built. In theory a get in could consist of lifting the dividing doors and winching the set on stage. In practice it was rarely that simple. However, I was able to utilise this splendid facility on my first show and won a number of brownie points for a painless opening to the season.

During my time at the Playhouse I designed three of Bill Naughton’s plays and they were always a pleasure to work on. The other two were ‘June Evening’ and ‘Lighthearted Intercourse’. At the time he was very popular but maybe has not stood the test of time. They suited the Playhouse very well: Liverpool’s other theatre and perpetual rival, The Everyman would have looked down on them as to cosy by half. The production standards at the Playhouse were very high, but when I visited the Everyman I was very conscious that their productions had that extra edge. The differences between the two could be summed up in the respective restaurants: The Playhouse’s, glossy and middle of the road, the basement Bistro at the Everyman, rough but full of atmosphere.

The wide range of repertoire demanded sets of varying styles, and although some plays suited me more than others it was exciting to try out new ideas. On reading a script my default mode is to respond to the atmosphere and period rather than the ideas behind. For this reason I prefer to work with directors who themselves have definite ideas and concepts rather than ones who say ‘I just need some ramps and levels’ and leave the rest to you. Dick Tuckey had great talent with large cast plays and the highlight of our collaboration for me was designing Brecht’s ‘The Days of the Commune’.

We worked on Brecht's own principle that the audience must never forget that they are in a theatre, that there must be no illusion. It's very difficult to differentiate between which ideas were Dick Tuckey's and which were mine. We settled independently but at the same time that we would use the revolve. We wanted to get away from the rather monochrome approach that is often applied to Brecht. Once we had the idea the set was basically incredibly simple. The revolve was a standard part of the Playhouse kit. It was not a permanent fixture, but could be laid down in a couple of hours. It was 30’ in diameter and hand cranked, which we made a feature of in the production. The wings and flies were stripped bare exposing the lighting rig. Other lighting positions were mounted on the two level red painted scaffold structure which wrapped around the revolve. On it were mounted two pivoted sculptural scenic units: a pair of classical columns and a rock. In addition there were flown items to signpost the varying locations. These bold but simple elements provided endless possibilities for the action to unfold without breaking.. Plays based on revolves are a nightmare to rehearse, and I wont forget watching one of the actors trying to perform the seemingly simple task of walking in a straight line along a carpet while the revolve was turning beneath him.

I’ve concentrated at length on this one show to give a idea of my work at that time. At the other extreme in Andrew Dallmeyer’s production of Peter Nicol’s splendid ‘The National Health’ I went for ultra realism in the design of the ward to contrast with the fantasy doctor / nurses scenes that cut into the action, which were played in front of a flown projection screen done in the ‘Mills and Boon’ style of illustration.

Collaboration is at the heart theatre work and I was very fortunate in the people who worked there, in all departments. With the fragmentation that happened in the eighties and nineties, many theatres closed their in house workshops and wardrobes and this, to my was of thinking was a huge loss. It might have made sense in economic terms, but it does divorce the ‘makers’; from the heart of the production and the designers work becomes that much more difficult.

For most of the time the designing was shared between members of the design department: I will just list their names as they all made a terrific contribution over the years. They were not all there at the same time, it was not that big a department!. Anne Sinclair, Billy Meall, Lynne Roberts, John West, and Richard Wright.

Guest designers were employed to bring a different perspective on an occasional basis, which was most refreshing. One of the most satisfying parts of being the head of design was seeing their different ways of working. and their designs realised to their satisfaction. To name a few: Karen Mills was a repeated guest, so to was David Cockayne. Laurie Dennett and Brian Currah did one each.

The Playhouse is a traditional 19th century proscenium theatre and in spite of having first rate technical facilities did have the usual limitations. Stages of that type were designed when most sets consisted of cloths and flatage and the action took place centre stage. Site lines are not a problem if these rules are followed, but play a scene on a high level or way upstage and the audience in the gallery or extreme sides of the auditorium start to complain. It was a perennial problem: how to make the production values relevant and exciting within these constraints. It was trying to solve these problems that bought into existance The Crucible in Sheffield and the marvellous Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.