A good set will not save a bad musical and a bad set can sink a good musical, though irritatingly there are several instances in the West End at the moment of a bad musical on a bad set making a fortune for its producers. In general what is particularly scary for musical producers is that the set concept has, by the very nature of production schedules, to be in place before casting is done, before rehearsals begin. The decision that may condemn the entire project to failure will have been made long before a single tap shoe hits the rehearsal room floor.
Project Model – Maintenance!
Ulla Hoos, the set designer of Maintenance!, was born in 1969 in Riga at a time when Latvia was part of the Soviet Empire. In her teens she joined the Young Socialist Drama League and spent her summer holidays hiking from village to village putting on shows like The Tractor Driver’s Lament in which the hero Ivan bewails the facts that both his wife Sonya is unfaithful to him and that the collective farm where he works fails to make its beet quotas.
In 1988 she went to East Berlin to study stage design at the celebrated Bumpundgrind Kunstschule. It was there that she became assistant to Karl Bleistiftspitzer and collaborated with him on the notorious all-woman S&M version of Ivor Novello’s Lilac Time which provoked a riot at its premiere as much due to its ghastly music as to its scenes of unbridled lesbian passion.
After German reunification she was invited to London by English National Opera to design The Marriage of Figaro, a production (set in a Belfast bookie’s shop at the height of the troubles) which put her in the forefront of a school of operatic design which habitually has the chorus tramping across dizzyingly raked stages while wearing shabby raincoats and carrying battered suitcases.
After her success with this Figaro ( at least with the critics, the production was much loathed by the public), she made London her base and set up a studio in Hackney.
In the fifteen years that Ulla has been in the UK she has worked on a wide range of projects, opera, dance, plays, performance art but sadly not musicals. Ulla has never ‘got’ musicals. Their colour, jollity, and their happy endings are entirely alien to her, as they are to Maintenance! director Kevin McHarrowing. They first met at the bar of an Edinburgh Fringe show, where they were the only people who appeared to be enjoying a gruelling Marxist re-interpretation of a Chilean folk tale. They were kindred spirits, soul mates and while their respective sexual proclivities prevented them forming a deeper relationship they became professional collaborators.
The industrial possibilities of Maintenance! and the intriguing fact that the show is set in Kettering led McHarrowing not only to invite Ulla to design but led to their first ‘joke’. “Do you like Kettering?” he asked her one day. “Oh I don’t know, I don’t think I have ever kettered” she replied sweetly (This joke brought to you courtesy of the Prestatyn Museum of Old Jokes).
The producers initial response to Ulla’s first sketch model is one of ill concealed horror and bewilderment. All the components are there. The futuristic ‘Front Room’ for the Prologue, the awesome Skoda production line opening scene, the Kettering street scene, the Pet Shop, the Garage, the Canal, the Skoda Fandango Finale, all are there but rendered in Ulla’s customary palette of black and grey and the overall surround looks like the underside of Spaghetti Junction. Both she and McHarrowing have been here before, most of their model presentations degenerate into artistic trench warfare and this one has all the makings of a Passchendaele. On the one hand he launches an intellectually watertight defence of their concept, she, on the other, promises to brighten things up, though privately she knows that this will only involve the addition of a little khaki or drab ochre. Eventually the producers convince themselves that they have wrung vital concessions from their dour creative team and turn to Stewart Cowless for the production manager’s take on the model. He patiently and good naturedly points out that the set as designed is unlikely to fit any West End theatre that the production might go into (at this point the deal with the Piccadilly is far in the future) and that at first sight it also looks to be unaffordable. Everyone in the room nods sagely at these uncomfortable truths but Alvin Toxteth hastily forestalls any further debate with a breezy “OK Stewart we hear what you say but let’s get some costings before we go any further”.
Cowless and Ulla start to tout the model around some of London’s scenery shops. They begin with Harry Rabone, the doyen of set builders, who like many of the old school started out on the bench at Ted Babbage’s. Harry is old fashioned in more ways than one and his attitude to women is that of a working class south London male and while his years in the business have taught him to try not to appear patronising to the feisty lady designers who come his way, he doesn’t always get it right. On this occasion he is on his best behaviour and doesn’t call Ulla ‘dear’ or ‘my love’ but Cowless does notice a steely gleam in her eye when she spots the calendar on the wall behind Harry’s desk. Miss September wearing nothing more than a baseball cap inscribed with the word ‘Gas’ can be seen doing something interesting with a petrol pump nozzle. They work their way through one grey set after another and after a while Harry asks “This is a musical isn’t it?”
“Yes of course” says Ulla “now what about these cobbles?”
“No problem darling” says Harry “we can get them on 8’ x 4 ‘ sheets these days in a range of sizes. These look like the Accrington or Clovelly range to me.”
“ No! No! Can’t you see? Every cobble is individual. The texture and profile vary across the stage. We need a sculptor to work with me on this.”
Cowless intervenes. “Ulla the difference in cost…..”
“No Stewart I can’t compromise on this. Cut what you like but the cobbles are a deal breaker for me”.
“Do they have cobbles in Kettering?” mutters Harry as they leave.
Their next stop is Accademia Scenery in Battersea, a relative newcomer on the London theatrical scene, Accademia is run by partners Giles Tennon and Alastair Mortis who both got into theatre at university, messing about backstage with the Dramatic Society. In fact both of them missed vital exams during their finals desperately trying to complete a set for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern thus precluding them from getting a degree and thus condemning them to a lifetime building scenery. (Oh woe! Mrs Worthington make sure your children pass their exams and get a proper job.)
After some preliminaries discussing the current Glyndebourne season Giles and Alastair get to grips with Ulla’s Maintenance! model. “Oh these subtle grey tones and the concrete finish are just fantastic!” and “This is so much more interesting than the normal run of the mill musicals that we get to cost” they enthuse. Finally the cobbles. “….and the cobbles! Let’s get Ivan in here. They are right up his alley.” Ivan, Accademia’s sculptor/propmaker, is summoned from the far corner of the workshop, he runs his fingers delicately over Ulla’s model and pronounces “Yes these are good! We can do these. My team can handcraft every cobble individually and then finish each with a series of washes and glazes that will give every stone a history”. Ulla purrs, Alastair & Giles beam, Stewart Cowless sighs.