Grand 'set' designs

What does the Director of a play do on the outset of a production when they have but a few vague ideas for the all important set design, but are not quite sure how the vision can materialise...? They call Malcolm Robertshaw and Richard Peskett of course!

Highbury's dynamic duo have been working together for quite a few years now, designing and constructing anything and everything, including, of late, a revolving set! They're both rather down-to-earth chaps and are proud to work alongside a fantastic workshop crew of dedicated carpenters, painters, decorators and construction workers. This may be a voluntary role but the professionalism and commitment rivals that of any 'paid' job in the Industry!

As the final show of the season drew to a close, we managed to catch them both briefly for an interview on one very busy Sunday morning in July, following the striking of the set for 'Snake in the Grass'.

Please introduce yourselves:

Malcolm - My name is Malcolm Robertshaw. I've been at Highbury for 21 years and my role in recent years has been set design/build coordinator. In practice I get involved in all the set designs and also involved in set building. Richard here is technically the head of the set building team, but we sort of do a partnership deal on it where we both help out equally really. I've been doing this particular role now for 7 years I would say. Sometimes the Director has their own designs that I just put into drawings and formalise, and then get involved in the set building.

Richard - I'm Richard Peskett. I've been working at Highbury about ten or eleven years - I can't quite remember! My official role is workshop manager and really it's my duty to work in collaboration with Malcolm about ensuring that the set gets built on time, as on time as we can, and ensuring all the materials that are required for building the set are available to the set builders: wood, screws, specialist materials...stuff like that, wallpaper, wallpaper glue, you name it, I buy it!

How did you get in to set building and set designing?

Malcolm - I always used to do acting mainly but when you're acting you're always expected to help take down the set, and it always seemed interesting the idea of putting the sets up. So I used to come along on Monday evenings and help to some extent early on, but then for many years I didn't get involved. But then when I took the current role of the sort of set designing/building coordinator, I just naturally gravitated into building the sets. Richard was ill the one time and I had to sort of step in. So once I got involved that way, things took route and I just carried on!

Malcolm on the set of 'Snake in the Grass'

Richard - I'd always been involved in theatre - I use that term loosely -  and I was always involved as a student, a pupil, in theatrical work, you know, school plays, mainly on the technical side - I never acted. Lighting, sound etc, and then as a young teacher I also was involved in the schools I taught at, doing various productions, again mainly on the technical side. And then about twelve years ago, I retired and I came to Highbury Theatre because my wife said, 'You've got to get out and do something!' So I got out and did something and I came here and did a bit of sound and lighting. I didn't really want to get involved in the long process of production, designing was fairly straight forward, but then being there every day, more or less for rehearsals was time consuming. So then I went to just working in the workshop, and got involved in set building, so that sums up about the last eight or nine years.
My wife said, 'You've got to get out and do something!'

How did you create the set for 'Snake in the Grass?'

Malcolm - I looked at what another theatre had done, which was a good starting point, and basically then just followed the requirements for what was needed, which was a summer house, tennis courts and so forth, but I came up with a very different plan, just because it suited the stage but mainly because we needed to use the trap door for the well - the 'throwing down the well' scene - so the trap door location really determined everything. Everything else just followed on from that. It wasn't a copy of the one I saw, but that was the original inspiration. I didn't see any other examples of what had been done, so my design was basically based on the set requirements...and we had three weeks to build it? (Richards replies with a - don't panic we knew what we were doing - YEP!) Three weeks to prepare for it. Sometimes we get four weeks! 

Malcolm and Richard striking the set of Snake in the Grass

Richard - Our average is around four weeks. Sometimes it's quite pressured because what we'd like to do is to give the actors and the Director at least two weeks access to the stage. There may not be two weeks worth of set build on the stage by the time they come onto the stage, but at least they get an idea of how it's developing. I mean for this one we were quite advanced really. I think the other thing is, as far as this set's concerned, I had seen quite a few summer houses on my travels around. One of the things I wanted to do was to put the lapping, the over-lapping wooden panels, to give it that real, rather than framed, wood effect, a contoured effect, which I thought looked pretty good.

Three weeks to prepare for it...sometimes we get four!

What upcoming projects are there in the future?

Malcolm - The upcoming season? I've already done set designs for the first play and I'm looking at the second one. Starting to think about the third one and some interesting sets coming up. Balconies overlooking the French Riviera, an Italian castle...something else Italian, I'm not quite sure now!

Richard - We're already building stuff for the next one.

Malcolm - Yeah we're building a fireplace!

Nearly complete set for our upcoming production of 'Absent Friends'

Richard - So some of the feature parts of the set - you know -  like the summer house was a feature on Snake in the Grass. We're already building feature bits for the next play. 

Malcolm - When you've got something special like a special door or something, or like the circular bench we had around the tree on the last set - they can be made well in advance, and the tree of course. So yes, the season is being constructed as we speak.

Richard - But also of course we do get requests from other partners of the theatre to do work for them. We have what's called a summer maintenance programme - we don't get much of a summer though do we? (laughs)

Malcolm - Well we start building again in about three weeks, so from taking one set down to the next set starting there'll be about three weeks. that's on the stage. We build it all ready in the workshop, but even on the stage it'll be about a three week break. That's the summer!

Highbury has a great season of plays ahead for 2018/2019 which will endeavor to transport you to new worlds, romance you, make you cry, laugh and gasp...but one thing is for sure, the set design for each production will be an absolute treat!

For more information about our upcoming plays please see our website:
Or to buy tickets go to our Box Office where you can find all of our plays for the next season as well as some film showings!


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