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Let's Talk About Sets: Tom Rogers on Grey Gardens

The designer of the European premiere of Grey Gardens explains how he created the crumbling Long Island mansion

The cast of Grey Gardens on the Tom Rogers' set
© Scott Rylander

Grey Gardens is the real life tale of two American aristocrats who end up as social outcasts living in squalid conditions, in a home overrun by cats. The piece is structured in contrasting halves, the first showing us the glamour (albeit crumbling) of their previous lives and the second, the squalor and tragedy of their eventual demise.

Despite success on Broadway, the writers welcomed a more intimate presentation for the show's European premiere. Southwark playhouse, where Danielle Tarento and Thom Southerland have a passion for presenting rarely staged masterpieces of musical theatre, was an obvious fit. However, the challenges that come with a fringe production, both financial and technical, meant that the very different ‘before' and ‘after' settings employed in the Broadway original just weren't an option for us. We agreed from the outset that we needed to be bold enough to present the whole piece in the same setting – that of the squalor and decay of their later lives.

This means that the characters' heyday is presented amongst the detritus of their future. In act one they shimmer in Jonathan Lipman's ravishing 40s costumes but against a background of peeling walls and piles of household rubbish. They are ghosts of Grey Gardens' past, or blinkered victims of it's inevitable demise.

I wanted to avoid a slavish recreation of the iconic house so present in the classic 1975 documentary, and look for a more conceptual approach to its representation. With design it is often the smallest thing that triggers an idea. The song "Around The World" lists some of the mementos that Little Edie treasures from her past. Among these is '...a birdcage for a bird who flew away...'.

Some research into antique birdcages showed that many of these, in the architectural style, had forms that resembled the gabling of these Long Island mansions. This gave me my framing device and led to the main structure of the house having open bars rather than solid walls. The characters are, after all, imprisoned in the house, Grey Gardens being defined in act one as "...those on the inside dying to leave...".

The detritus is also a major part of the design and needed to be filmic in its detail as the audience is so close to the action. It also needed to have hints of the affluence of the first act. Therefore there are crystal lamps, Hermes scarves, and fallen chandeliers among the open cat food tins and old newspapers.

Jenna Russell in Grey Gardens
© Scott Rylander

A return to fringe theatre is a reminder that limitations can push you towards more creative solutions. It also relies on the generosity of those in your contacts book. The set, of an ambitious scale for both our budget and the venue, wouldn't have been achievable without the enthusiasm of Durham Scenic Workshop, the Salisbury Playhouse allowing us to raid their props store and our ASM's family permitting us to empty their house (a veritable London Grey Gardens) of it's incredible contents, barely leaving them enough furniture for their Christmas lunch.

- Tom Rogers

Grey Gardens is on at Southwark Playhouse until 6 February.