Visiting John Napier in his Polegate studio

PUBLISHED: 09:43 25 January 2016

John Napier (photo by Julian Napier)

John Napier (photo by Julian Napier)


John Napier’s set and costume designs have won him multiple awards, but as Alice Cooke found out when she went to meet him at his Polegate studio, he also has some fascinating stories to tell

Before meeting John Napier at his Polegate studio, I was aware of some of his world-renowned work, but I was not prepared for what I found there.

By way of introduction we chatted about his longest-running and arguably most famous shows, Cats and Starlight Express. The junkyard set for the former has been precisely recreated in model form and sits just to our left, “albeit with cheeky nods to my own life and interests”, says John. It, alongside many other scaled-down versions of sets for internationally renowned productions, sit all around us, and are for the most part for sale. “Although you’d need an awful lot of space in your house to fit some of them in!”

My interest was piqued by a Les Miserables piece, complete with barricades and French cobbles, which I was proud to be able to identify before being told. And it was then, upon seeing my thinly-veiled excitement, that John offered to give me a full tour of all the works in the studio. Had I been on set myself this would have been an appropriate moment to break into jubilant song, but alas I fear my theatrical career is (sensibly) on hold, at least for the time being.

I was promised around half an hour of John’s time – he is an extremely busy man and when we met he was in preparation for Stages, Beyond the Fourth Wall, an exhibition at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne that features pieces from his entire career to date, which is open now. But greedily I took something approaching a few hours to take in everything that the studio, and John, had to offer.

The oversized metal horse’s heads that made up the costumes for Equus sit alongside pieces from Jesus Christ Superstar, Miss Saigon and a stage reproduction of Sebastian Faulkes’ Birdsong. Quite apart from the undeniable quality and quantity of his work on productions spanning the globe, John has received a string of accolades including four Olivier Awards, a BAFTA and five Tony Awards.

Photo by Peter PriorPhoto by Peter Prior

Originally a sculptor, John attended Hornsey College of Art where he studied Fine Art, and was exposed to “a hothouse, a kaleidoscope of ideas. People were into all kinds of strange things, very abstract art forms”. Eventually, well past the midpoint of his formal art studies, he began to experience a need for a more direct awareness of life and people: “I wasn’t being fed with enough reality to be able to do anything of any significance whatsoever, except to play around with pure form, idiosyncratic ideas.” He made a decision that once he finished art college he would commit himself to working closely with other people. “I didn’t and still don’t feel I’ve got anything to give the world in terms of just myself.”

Having concentrated on sculpture during his final years at Hornsey, John spent the year after graduation working on an elaborate exhibit in Stratford upon Avon commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. There, established scenographer Timothy O’Brian recommended that he pursue the study of stage design at the Central School of Art and Crafts in London.

He followed that advice and studied there under set designer Ralph Koltai. Although he enjoyed the theatre, John had never considered pursuing anything theatrical himself. “Set design wasn’t really a thing then – it was all wobbly flats on wheels and painted walls. And as for costume, I know it seems absurd now that you would have one guy doing both the set and the costume, but in those days it was perfectly commonplace.”

Now he says there are a huge amount of set designers, and it’s not necessarily a good thing. “When I was at Central St Martins there were ten people in a year. Now there’s something like, I don’t know, 35, 40, 50, 60...and I really don’t know where they’re going to find the work.”

The transition from sculpture (which he still does alongside his set design work) to theatre only came when as a student his class received tickets to the dress rehearsals of various London shows, “so that the productions could be tested in front of an audience. I saw some amazing stuff that really inspired me. Around the same time a theatre designer noticed my work and asked if I would work for him during the summer”.

Photo by Julian NapierPhoto by Julian Napier

John’s ideas were so original and different to everything else that was being created at the time that he was actually asked to leave. “I only went back when one of my lecturers phoned me up and said, ‘are you joking? You’re one of the best guys we’ve had in years, get back here!’” Despite all this he modestly says that his work has “no personal style.”

Even before finishing formal study at the Central School he was offered the position of Head of Design at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, where he remained for a year and a half before moving on to work at the Nottingham Theatre. One of his productions there, Peter Barnes’s The Ruling Class moved to the West End and became Napier’s first major London production.

John then went on to be the Associate Designer at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and has now worked in the West End and on Broadway more times than he can recall. He is amazingly nonchalant as he tells me about being flown across the world to design a production. “It’s always incredibly exciting, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also pretty exhausting.”

John has worked with Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Trevor Nunn, both theatrical giants in their own right, but as far as his story goes, this is only the tip of the iceberg. He worked with Stephen Spielberg on the set for the film Hook, and his original drawings are in one of many drawers full of etchings and designs for famous productions from across the world.

He can name Star Wars director George Lucas as a colleague and flew out to see the director at his San Francisco ranch to talk through some ideas. There he also met Michael Jackson, who he describes as “a very softly spoken, incredibly generous and kind man”.

Photo by Julian NapierPhoto by Julian Napier

As a result of the meeting, John went on to design one of Michael’s videos, for the film Captain EO.

His stories are seemingly endless and endlessly fascinating, and it is no exaggeration to say that I practically had to be pushed out of the door of the studio when our meeting drew to a close.

Stages, Beyond the Fourth Wall is at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne until 31 January

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