Let's talk about sets: Lily Arnold on So Here We Are at the Royal Exchange

We chat to set designer Lily Arnold about the process of designing Luke Norris’ new play

One of the first things that struck me about the play, and something that felt like a real challenge was how to create a really clear distinction in style, time and location between the first and second acts of the play. In the first act we see a group of lads gathered on the Southend sea wall, immediately after the funeral of their best mate, one long scene, fast paced dialogue, comic.

The second act then goes back into the memory of each of the guys and their relationship with Frankie, multiple locations and jump cuts between short scenes; a dream play. I knew the set had to somehow transform, in a very honest, visible way, without needing stage crew (we didn't have any) but using the actors to drag us into the past. This meant working closely with the director Steven to decide how this transition might exist to support the narrative of the play.

A challenge that can sometimes present itself when designing a show is how to create a design that can work in venues that are very different. In the case of So Here We Are, you couldn't get more different between the Royal Exchange Studio (bright blue walls, light wooden floorboards, flexible seating) and the Hightide Festival Jubilee Hall (traditional end on proscenium arch, raked bleacher seating.) The challenge then was to design a set that created its own boundaries and that didn't directly relate to the specific features of either building.

The other big challenge was how to achieve levels in the design to be able to tell the story of the lads being on a sea wall and having enough physical distance between them and Dan down in the shoreline below. Particularly difficult as the Royal Exchange studio has little height to play with. Consequently we ended up having to remove a lighting bridge to create more space above the actors and try to turn a very intimate studio into a more epic landscape.

[The thing I'm most proud of is] the container, though I can't take any credit for the incredible construction brainpower it needed to make it. Testament to the brilliance of Carl and the RET workshop and Meriel who painted it so beautifully. It's very easy for the actors to use and is crucial in the creation of levels and the transformation between the acts; serving metaphorically as storage for the characters memories which burst out of it to transport us into the second act and the past.

Lily Arnold

So Here We Are runs at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 10 October.