Southwark’s 150-seat Menier Chocolate Factory is very much the Off-West End venue of the moment, with – amongst many other achievements in its three-year history – three West End transfers, five Laurence Olivier Awards, three Awards and an Evening Standard Award for Outstanding Newcomer to its name (See “Hot Chocolate: The Rise of the Menier”, Features, 2 Apr 2007). And the venue owes much of its reputation for ambitious sets to David Farley, who has designed four acclaimed productions at the venue to date.

Most notably, Farley teamed up with Timothy Bird to create the multi award-winning design of the Menier revival of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, which last year transferred to the West End following its Southwark run and next year transfers to Broadway (opening at Studio 54 in January 2008). Amongst its myriad accolades, the production nabbed Farley and Bird Best Design prizes at the Critics’ Circle, Evening Standard and Laurence Olivier Awards, as well as a nomination in the Theatregoers’ Choice Awards.

Farley’s other Menier productions, all musicals, have been the UK premieres of Jonathan Larsen’s Tick Tick Boom! and Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years and the revival of Little Shop of Horrors, which transferred to the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre last month. For Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s sci-fi spoof, Farley broke with tradition by creating a new design for Audrey II, the Shop’s man-eating plant.

Outside the Menier, Farley’s credits, many of them at Sheffield Theatres, have included The Laramie Project, Frankie and Johnny, The Lemon Princess, Zero Degrees and Drifting, Quartermaine’s Terms, Dealer’s Choice, The Seagull, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, The Shawl, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and Macbeth.

Date & place of birth
Born 25 January 1977 in Gloucester.

Lives now in
Newington Green, north London.

BA Degree in Theatre Design from Wimbledon School of Art and a BTEC Foundation Studies in Art and Design from the Oxfordshire School of Art and Design.

First big break
My first big break was designing a David Mamet double bill of Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Shawl, which was on Sheffield Crucible’s main stage, directed by Angus Jackson. Michael Grandage put Angus and I together. Until then, I’d been designing fringe productions, small shows. This was my first proper experience of working in a theatre where I wasn’t going to have to build the entire set myself.

Career highlights
I wasn’t entirely sure about doing my first job at the Chocolate Factory - thank goodness I did! Working with Timothy Bird and Sam Buntrock in that partnership there has been a definite highlight. One of the great things that’s come from Sunday in the Park with George is the recognition with the design that the two things - the projection (care of Bird) and the set - are utterly integrated. That was something we strived for from the very beginning. We thought there should never be any separation from the real characters on stage and the animated projected characters. Achieving that collision between the real and virtual worlds was fantastic. It’s amazing getting so much recognition for Sunday. The Olivier is the award you dream of winning – I hoped I might get there when I was 50 or so. To win now, having just turned 30, is scary. Awards open doors and make people take you more seriously. Producers who wouldn’t think of me for a job before are now very interested. I haven’t changed, I still do what I do.

Favourite productions
Someone to Watch Over Me, one of my student shows which I did with the director Mark Rosenblatt at Oxford, was a beautiful beautiful piece. And Sunday, of course, was incredibly rewarding. It was Sam Buntrock’s baby. He had this vision of using a combination of computer-generated animation, video projection and live actors, and he decided, somehow, we were going to do it. It was incredibly exciting. I’d never seen the show in the flesh before but knowing the way it’s done opened up the possibilities. I had a real epiphany with it. I remember thinking, okay, if I pull the stops out, work every hour I can (I was often at the theatre from six in the morning till two at night) and make this the best we possibly can, maybe… and then in the last stages seeing it really come together. Those are very much the moments that make it all worthwhile, when you realise, everything’s possible.

Favourite actors
I’m very bad at remembering names, but I can tell you that generosity makes a massive difference. Generous actors who try and make the design work are the ones you want to work with – you really notice that, particularly when you’re on small budgets. You can always tell in a costume fitting. An actor or actress will either try and make what you’re doing look as good as they can or they won’t bother.

Favourite directors
I loved working with Angus Jackson, he’s an incredibly intelligent director. James Phillips is brilliantly challenging. What I want from a director is someone who’s going to challenge you. I’m doing Sweeney Todd at the moment for the Gate in Dublin and I’m working with Selina Cartmell. She’s constantly questioning things, which is great. An openness with ideas is very important as well. I enjoy a collaborative approach.

Which other designers do you most admire?
Christopher Oram and Peter McKintosh are my two gay dads! I’ve assisted both of them and learned so much from them. I also admire the work of Robert Jones, Bunny Christie and Hildegard Bechtler.

What’s the first thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
The piece that made me decide I wanted to be involved in theatre was a David Glass production of Gormenghast at the Oxford Playhouse when I was about 15. The beautiful imagery of this abstract piece of physical theatre and raw storytelling - after only ever having seeing panto and straight dramas before - was so refreshing and magical. It was like, wow, I want to do that!

What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become involved in theatre?
I wanted to be an architect until I found out it was a seven-year degree course. Then I realised, if I did theatre design, I could use all the same skills - I love the act of technical drawing, I love model-making and knowing how things work – and they could go into building things on stage for a short amount of time. Then they go in the skip and you get to do it all again. Perfect! And you don’t have to worry about planning laws!

Favourite book
Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson. It’s a beautiful, poetic, visual piece of writing which I’ve read over and over again.

Favourite holiday destination
I desperately want to go to Cuba before Castro pops his clogs. I’m scared of it changing and I’d love to see it as it is.

If you could swap places with someone (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Wow. I have absolutely no idea. I would love to have been around in the Thirties. I don’t know why. But someone in the Thirties would do.

Why did you want to get involved in this production of Little Shop of Horrors?
David Babani (artistic director of the Menier Chocolate Factory) told me he had got hold of the rights and wanted to do this and would I be interested in designing it. My first reaction was: yes, great show, as long as we can do something new with the plant. If you’re tied to the original designs then it can become very staid, and the joy of my job is that I get to do something new and different each time. Historically, there have been good reasons to keep with the same Audrey II. In the original B-movie, the plant is that shape, the very simple split cabbage thing that just opens and closes. That size puppet is very expensive so often companies can only afford to do Little Shop if they hire the plants, all based on the original design, that are already doing the rounds. It’s usually a case of, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

How difficult was it to get permission to make the design changes?
Surprisingly, not that tricky. We did have to submit our designs to the Ashman estate and go through that process. They said, great, you did something different with Sunday in the Park with George, we’re really interested to see what you’re going to do with this. Anyway, I wouldn’t say our Audrey II is massively different. It’s still a big green plant, but I hope it’s a lot more visceral and a bit more human, particularly in the way the lips work.

Were you familiar with Little Shop of Horrors beforehand?
I had seen the film but I’d never seen any stage productions of it, not even any amateur productions. I knew the Broadway cast recording, though. When you’re designing a musical, continuously listening to different cast recordings can give you a good feel for the show. Of course, you’ve got to take into account how long ago it was recorded and what was fashionable then.

What else did you do to develop the plant design?
Good old field research. I started at Kew Gardens with the very helpful staff down there, looking round the carnivorous glasshouses at all the different species of plants that eat stuff. From there, I did a bit more research into exotic species you might find in the tropics. That led me to one particular species which had a very fat, bloated stomach-like vessel and that contrasted with the thin tubular things I’d seen at Kew. Once we had the key visual concept together, then the practicalities started: how on earth does this get operated? This was the first time I’ve ever done any puppet work so there was me in the studio with lots of photos of myself on time-delay in various poses trying to work out how can I fit into a plant and operate it if it’s only one and a half metres tall. It was a matter of taking those pictures and sketching around them to work out the interaction between the humans and puppets. That’s also where I started to work out the scale. I went to our puppet supervisor Nigel Plaskett - he actually worked on the film version as a puppeteer and he gave me lots of advice on things to watch out for – and asked whether I was completely barking mad. He then hooked us up with Artem, the special effects makers, who actually built the things.

How involved do you normally get in the technical aspects of your designs?
I really enjoy that side of design as well. I could have just handed over visuals and said, I want it to look like this and I don’t care how you do it. But I think that’s a bit slack - part of the process is understanding how things work. If you understand the process, then you know how you can abuse it, how far you can push it and you might be able to use things in a more creative way. Artem designed the mechanical aspects of the plants, the animatronics - the small ones, which are like a particularly fancy radio-controlled car with no wheels, through to the big one, which has a great harness for the puppeteer and big stabilising rods so the puppeteer can move the plant in all sorts of directions but he doesn’t take the weight of the bodies as they get eaten. Artem also did the fabrication of the skin. I worked a lot with one of their sculptors doing life-size clay figures of the actual plants. I got my hands very dirty.

Beyond the plant, what was your inspiration for Little Shop’s set & costumes?
B movies from the 1960s. I wanted to run with that low-budget aesthetic - if you embrace that in the right way, it can really help. And we were working on a very tight budget! The cost of the plant was around £100,000, which was the cheapest we could find – luckily, David Babani did one of his magical deals. For everything else, though, it was I think £6,500 for the set and £3,000 for the costumes. In Little Shop of Horrors, all the characters are quite stereotyped and so is Skid Row itself, it’s a stereotype of down-and-out Americana. It’s not one specific city. It’s definitely not New York, but it could be a mixture of Chicago and Detroit and those kinds of big industrial American cities.

What was the biggest challenge with the production?
Time was the major factor. The plant skins took a lot longer to dry than anticipated. That was the only real problem in rehearsals. We’ve occasionally had issues with the radio-controlled ones and the local taxi cabs - just now and then there’s a little gremlin that gets in the system and gives the company something to overcome.

How much more work was required for the West End transfer?
Set-wise, it’s been a big redesign. When I design Chocolate Factory shows, I design specifically for that space. It’s such an unusual space and I look to use and abuse its quirks. That means incredibly wide but not very deep sets. If we were to pick up one of my Chocolate Factory sets and drop it straight into a West End theatre, we’d need the Palladium because of the width. With Little Shop, we had to redesign a lot to fit it into the Duke of York’s. It was the same taking Sunday in the Park with George to Wyndham’s.

What are your future plans?
First up is Sweeney Todd, which opens on 15 April at the Gate in Dublin. Then I’m doing the summer musical for the Menier. And then next year, we’re doing Sunday over in America. We’ll see what happens!

- David Farley was speaking to Terri Paddock

Little Shop of Horrors is at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre, where it’s currently booking until 2 June 2007.