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Let's Talk About Sets: Simon Scullion on Peter Pan Goes Wrong

The designer explains how he designed Mischief Theatre's hit comedy

The 2015 cast of Peter Pan Goes Wrong
©Alastair Muir

Peter Pan Goes Wrong is a play within a play about a company of amateur actors performing their production of Peter Pan. We follow the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society as their show slowly descends into chaos as props and the set malfunction, relationships are stretched and eventually even the revolve on which they perform takes on a life of its own.

The show is a mix of visual gags and physical set pieces which needed to be incorporated into the design. The design also needed to tell the story of Peter Pan which is the constant and relentless driving force of the show. The show is written to take place on a revolve which is a perfect device to frame the show by its constant motion and ability to reveal and propel the action.

The set at the Apollo Theatre is the one used on tour which was designed to work within the touring model of fitting up the whole show from scratch on a Monday morning and opening the same evening. With this in mind and also only having only one forty foot trailer to transport the set, revolve, props, costumes and some extra lighting from venue to venue the set had to be compact and easy to erect but also substantial enough to fill some large stages.

The brief was that things should appear dangerous, which actually takes a lot of planning.

I decided that to achieve the look of a Christmas show that Cornley Polytechnic might produce we should use traditional canvas flats and cloths. This also helped solve the problem of having multiple settings that needed to be of a certain size but also pack away neatly and in a compact fashion for transport. We had a seven and a half meter diameter revolve constructed with the most powerful motor we could afford to give us the high speeds needed in order to create the sense of danger as the show reaches its climax and the revolve spins out of control. The revolve was split into three equal spaces so as a scene takes place in one section one of the others can be changed out of view for a new scene. We decided that the revolve should not be flush with the surrounding floor but stand raised and isolated which would help give the impression of the actors being trapped on a fast moving merry go round.

The 2015 cast of Peter Pan Goes Wrong
©Alaistair Muir

The driving force for the design was not so much aesthetic but primarily one of practicality to create a set which allowed the free flow of actors moving from scene to scene on a moving revolve and incorporating all the mechanical gags and malfunctions that occur throughout the play. The brief was that things should appear dangerous, which actually takes a lot of planning. The added factor of having Peter Pan flying about presented another series of challenges too but also helped create a real sense of peril.

The design process was about choreographing all the scenes in quite a lot of detail while also trying to give the performers a series of spaces that they could play with and add their own business to. It has a painterly feel and look but feels contemporary. All the disparate elements of the design are pulled together by the simple framing device of a blue portal created by blue drapes, a blue floor and a printed blue backcloth which has a simple design that looks like an astral chart and helps give it all a magical Peter Pan feel.

By Simon Scullion

Peter Pan Goes Wrong runs at the Apollo Theatre until 29 January 2017.