Behind the scenes at Goodnight Mister Tom

Published November 28, 2012

One of the most treasured privileges of being a theatre journalist are those occasions when you’re allowed to cross the sacred space between the audience and what lies behind the scenes, lurking in the wings and in the cramped stairwells hidden behind the opulence of the West End.

If that sounds a bit terrifying, it’s not. Amongst the shadows of West End theatres’ warren-like buildings, the cleverest and most subtle touches that transport a show from black and white into technicolour are housed, and Goodnight Mister Tom is no exception. Hidden behind the show’s backdrop lies a curiosity shop of objects and costumes. In amongst the make-shift changing rooms and dark corridors lies a deceivingly chaotic-seeming mass of props to transport audiences back to the Second World War. Rows of battered suitcases, gas marks and vintage jumpers line the walls while lost-looking shoes sit atop chairs, ready to be pulled on in the quickest of changes, a puppet dog lies sleeping in a cardboard box and retro war effort posters prop up against old-fashioned prams and vintage tea sets.

It’s award-winning designer Robert Innes Hopkins’ job to make this world come to life and help audiences on their journey of make believe. As he takes me through the carefully labelled and numbered items and I discover the poster to be Photoshop-ed rather than priceless, the tiny shoes deliberately scuffed rather than ruined from hours of playing football on cobbles, the world he creates only becomes more vivid.

Before our journey behind the scenes that you can see in the gallery above, the designer, whose extensive credits include Swallows And Amazons in the West End, Royal Court hit Clybourne Park and Children’s Children at the Almeida, spoke to me about the process of taking audiences back in time.

In a nutshell, what is the process of designing a show?
You read the piece first and talk with the director. Then you start sketching ideas and putting the ideas into a model box and keep refining it down. When it’s firmed up a bit [with the director], there are meetings with producers, production managers and technical staff about the feasibility of it, then you go back and do a finished model you can present to everyone and becomes the thing that is built for the show.

Does the director give you a strict brief or can you do whatever you like?
Ultimately it depends on the relationship with the director, because they’re all slightly different. Certainly in this case we’re very much a team and we do it together, we’ve both had a voice in the process and through that have arrived somewhere where we’re both happy.

You’ve worked on lots of operas and ‘grown-up’ productions. Is it different working on a family show?
I don’t think so. We’d just finished a dress rehearsal yesterday and the first audience were coming in in two hours’ time and we were all running around, the adrenaline was flowing, and I said to one of the producers ‘It doesn’t matter what scale you work at, if it’s a theatre above a pub or an opera house in some glamorous city, it’s exactly the same feeling, it’s always the same process.’ You’re always trying to find a truth within the story and I think that that is what counts, especially for children, you’re trying to tell the story as well as possible.

What about the logistics of having kids on stage? Does that have to be taken into account?
Well, yes. The set has a trick up its sleeve when we go to London in the second half and that was very much part of the idea of the design when we first started showing it to other people and we had to find out whether it was actually possibly to shut a 10-year-old child inside a giant ceiling! Which it is…

There are puppets too, we have a puppet dog. Watching it last night, there’s a beautiful moment when you suddenly realise you’re looking at a 12 year old on stage, a 73 year old on stage and a puppet dog. You think ‘Come on, this is pretty good’!

Do you design the puppets too?
Toby Olié designed the puppets. It’s such a specialist area and it tends to be the puppeteer who designs the puppet because they know what they want. It’s quite a contained area of expertise, but you would talk about material choices.

Goodnight Mister Tom is set during the Second World War. Did you do a lot of research into the period?
My daughter’s just done it at school, it’s seems to be something that’s in all our knowledge. But yes, in certain areas. I researched a little bit about Anderson Shelters [air-raid shelters], which is a new idea, we didn’t have it the first time we did it [on tour], we’ve made a couple of changes. For details in costumes, you have to research it.

Are the costumes made for the show?
No we’ve gone to Angels – one of the biggest costume stores in the world – where some of the pieces will be original. I always think with a show like this, when it’s real people in real clothes, when you go to Angels they’ve got pretty much everything, but the clothes also look lived in. When you make clothes, it’s then very hard to make those clothes feel believably lived in so you end up spending an enormous amount of money. I think it’s a good idea to make something when you want it to be really sharp and defined, but when you’re creating a community of real people then it’s not a bad thing to go and rent it.

Is that the same with the props or have you made any of them?
There are quite a lot of props in the show and we’ve made a few. We certainly have a few original pieces as well; you can still find stuff from that era in junk shops, markets and things.

Is there any particular ‘find’ you’re proud of?
[Breaks into a grin] I do very much like the chair we use in the hospital; I’m very fond of that. I’m pretty sure it’s an original. We’ve got a very lovely kid’s bike from that era. Again, they’re satisfying things when they have a history, especially these days we like old things and with props it’s the same. Nothing’s new, it’s all make do and mend.

Does a designer’s job stop after you’ve built and dressed the set?
Your job finishes on the first night. We’ll be in working with the actors until then, just tightening up. We did notes after the preview last night so we’re implementing those notes today and then there’ll be more notes after the preview tonight. [From my point of view] it’s things like sight-lines and we’re changing William’s socks for example, it’s details.

Why are you changing his socks?
Because he doesn’t look vulnerable enough when we first see him. So we’re changing his socks to something a little more ragged and uncomfortable so that when he does put Mister Tom’s socks on, there is some comfort in them. We need to work on his hair a bit, which you’ve just reminded me of! Again, he doesn’t look vulnerable enough so I think we need to go a bit shorter.

Are there any design secrets or tricks in the show, the audience won’t see?
It’s not really a trick, but there are a lot of costume changes. It’s a cast of 13 and we must have 30-odd characters so that’s a lot of costume changes, some of those happen quite quickly.

Is there a particular aspect of the design you enjoy most?
I always think it’s slightly schizophrenic because there’s two very distinct periods in designing a show. One is very insular and quite a lot of the time it’s me sitting in my studio by myself thinking about the show, it’s just me and the model box. And then of course once it’s designed and it goes into rehearsal, you’re suddenly part of quite a large team and so it goes from being quite insular to quite social and then back again. I’ll finish this and then I’ll be back in the studio by myself.

Do you have a beautifully designed home full of interesting collected objects?
It’s alright! We’ve got two kids so it doesn’t stay beautiful for very long… I do quite a lot of work abroad and I always like to come back with quirky little things from antique and junk shops, pictures, little vials, pottery pieces.

Do they ever make it on stage?
No. Although our youngest had outgrown his Stokke chair so we donated it and that was on the stage at the Almeida in the last show I did. But sometimes when Stage Management or an actor say they’ve got something at home that would be just right, you think ‘No, let’s not do that. Let’s keep a good clear separation between the two’.