Creating the world for Chichester's Coram Boy

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Simon Higlett has designed more than 400 shows for the theatre including around 60 for Chichester Festival Theatre.

Coram Boy is the latest – play number two on the main-house stage this summer, running from May 24-June 15. For Simon, it has represented one of his biggest challenges so far, a moving and richly-colourful tale of 18th-century England. The starting point, as always, is that the Festival Theatre is a very difficult space to design for: “Every time I think ‘What am I going to do?’ I still draw by hand. I don't design on the computer and every time I think ‘How do I do this?’”

The side seats are a particular challenge: “There are other theatres that are the same shape but Chichester is the biggest of them and when I start on the model I build in the side seats just to remind myself that they are there and I put the model low down because for Chichester you have to be looking down on it and then you've got the challenge always of wanting to do something different. There is a formula that works in Chichester which is that it’s a theatre that's not really designed for scenery. That's the problem. It is an epic space and you try to put something on there and it's really difficult. Put a sofa on there and there will always be someone who would be looking at the back of someone’s head. All theatres always have their sweet spots and you have to find out where they are, but here you also have to be aware of people looking at other members of the audience. You feel like you're in a big room rather than in a commercial theatre space. I have worked a lot at the Royal Exchange in my career and I have loved it. I love working in the round. It makes you design the play rather than the scenery. You don't have to think walls and doors all the time and at the Festival Theatre it’s a little bit like that because you're dealing with the space rather than dealing with the proscenium picture.

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“So you're looking at a blank piece of paper to start with and you hope that something comes to mind and then you remind yourself by looking at your website that you've done it before lots of times and suddenly you remember that you can do it. Coram Boy is an epic play and I think it's perfect for Chichester but it has been quite extraordinarily hard to do because the scenes are very, very short. There are 34 in act one in different locations and you think how do you approach that. You have to come up with something that suggests a little bit of everything.”

Simon Higlett (contributed pic)Simon Higlett (contributed pic)
Simon Higlett (contributed pic)

Going to some of the existing locations helped. With director Anna Ledwich, Simon went to Gloucester Cathedral and also to Gloucester docks: “You go to these specific places and you look in a different way. Gloucester docks are substantially changed but the atmosphere was very interesting and we also went to the foundling hospital which is still there and the museum is extraordinarily moving.”

Simon built these locations into the model for the production: “But then it was almost like we had to remove them because it is just too sweeping and too fast moving and each scene is only about two or three pages long. We decided that you perhaps could not be quite so specific.”