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Michael Coveney: Commitments illuminated in theatre lighting debate

Our chief critic reflects on the crucial role played by theatre lighting

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In the spotlight: The cast of The Commitments

With the new Roddy Doyle musical of The Commitments, based on his own novel but most recognisable to its potential audience through the terrific Alan Parker movie (which merits hardly a mention in the programme), opening in the West End tonight, I was suitably regaled with tales of theatrical rock and related lighting topics at an industry conference yesterday.

Max Stafford-Clark once famously invited theatre critics to attend a pre-opening technical lighting session at the Royal Court on the grounds that looking under the bonnet could help them drive the car, even if they didn't know the way.

I can't remember now if any critics took him up on this, but the feeling - well, my feeling - was that the sort of information about a production you might need to write a review didn't include the number of lamps lighting it or the colour of the gels inside them.

So I felt slightly out of place when I rocked up to the ExCel exhibition and conference centre in the Royal Victoria Docks next to City Airport. The place is playing host this week to PLASA - the Professional Lighting and Sound Association - and I was taking part in a panel discussion on the visible changes in theatre design and technology over the past 50 years.

Before finding our venue on the first floor I walked through a visual jungle of sound and lighting effects, commercial stands, coffee bars, general technical wizardry and sound systems: it was like finding myself in a Metropolis of entertainment with everything ready for action except the show itself.

Our chairman was Richard Pilbrow, Laurence Olivier's technical and lighting consultant on the National Theatre from the beginning in 1963; he later founded Theatre Projects, which operates worldwide as a technical and building consultancy, and now lives in America in Connecticut, 40 minutes from New York.

He wanted his panellists to touch on the changes over the years, and this we did, me from a strictly non-technical point of view - though I cited such things as the influence of Brecht, Christopher Morley's white box at the Royal Court and RSC, David Hersey's "curtain of light" for Evita, and so on - the others from their standpoint of expertise and participation.

Amazing stories we heard, too, of scenic innovations from Richard Brett and the first "sound design" (that credit introduced on the musical Pickwick starring Harry Secombe in 1963) from David Collison - both of them colleagues of Pilbrow at the NT - of rock and roll concerts from Brian Croft (who was first astounded at new ways of doing things by Tony Richardson's Othello, with lighting by Michael Northern, at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1959) and from Rick Fisher, who lit Billy Elliot and is next on the radar at Hampstead for the new Simon Paisley Day play, Raving, at Hampstead Theatre later this month.

How we packed in everything we did in under an hour is hard to imagine, but we did, whipped along by Pilbrow and his power point display - he said, incidentally that Love for Love at the National, with Olivier "being naughty" was the best ever; I asked who had lit one of my favourite NT Olivier shows, The Recruiting Officer, which Bamber Gascoigne, writing in The Observer, likened to "a winter's day with frost and sun"; "I did" he said - and ending with Patrick Woodroffe, the genius of the Olympic Games opening ceremony, who revealed that with one hour to go to kick-off, his crew leader told him that only two of the five illuminated Olympic rings were working.

As we know, it all went off without a hitch and something a little better than that, too. Woodroffe started lighting rock concerts in theatres and city halls and everything changed when the Vari-Lights came in - he thinks in a David Bowie concert - invented in Texas. That new lighting technology was redirected back into the theatre, underwritten, as it were, by the Stones, Genesis, Pink Floyd and Bono. Rick Fisher thought that Miss Saigon and Les Miserables were the first West End shows (Starlight Express, surely?), both produced by Cameron Mackintosh, to fully benefit.

Woodroffe also fascinatingly described how he could get a theatrical discipline into a Stones concert by insisting they divide their programme into five slabs, or five acts: a flurry of an opening group of wild songs, then a slow ballad-y section, some Keith Richard material, a mixed bag of surprises then a storming finale.

Brian Croft - who worked with Michael Croft, no relation, in the early days of the National Youth Theatre, and with Michael Kustow in the heyday of the ICA in the Mall - said that the Beatles never really did proper rock shows - they were more shows of the album - until Paul McCartney went more "theatrical" 20 years ago with Linda McCartney, Band on the Run and all the rest...

Obviously, to some extent, The Commitments at the Palace Theatre is a rock, or at least "soul," concert of the 1980s, so you could hardly expect the lighting to be state-of-the-art contemporary. Nor is it. But it does remind me of the moment in the mid 1970s when a literary critic and rock music fiend and friend of mine, John Coldstream, then writing on the Telegraph, suggested to me that it was high time a theatre magazine I was editing should carry a survey of rock concerts as "theatre."

He duly obliged with an account of the sort of show then being lit by Brian Croft and Patrick Woodroffe at Earl's Court, Hammersmith and the Roundhouse, and within ten years - it took that long - the theatre was shaken out of its Brechtian puritan apathy, if you like; though nothing is as conveniently fixed as we sometimes think in theatrical presentation.

And to prove it, Richard Pilbrow reminded us that the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht's theatre which transformed and influenced all post-war European theatre, very rarely worked in white light; he seems to remember everything being washed through with colour, especially blue... and the actors - "My God, the actors!" exclaimed Pilbrow - "Each and every one of them was simply great." As well as looking like, said Kenneth Tynan, any ordinary person you might see standing in a bus queue.