Let's talk about sets: Hetty Feather's Katie Sykes

The stage adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson’s much loved novel has returned to the West End

It was lovely to revisit Hetty Feather as it combines absolute practical engineering with a lovely Victorian circus aesthetic making it one of my favourite designs.

I sometimes think designing is more like solving a jigsaw puzzle than about big artistic statements and so designing Hetty Feather was a really interesting challenge as I needed to create a structure that would support aerial circus work, would tour easily and look great! Luckily we had a week of R and D at a circus school in Bristol six months before I needed to create the model. This gave me loads of opportunities to chat with Gwen Hales (aerial choreographer) about what type of structure we would need. At one point we thought we could potentially use each theatre’s own rig to hang from but that conversation didn’t last long once we decided it would be impossible to control what the different theatres could offer in terms of rated bars etc.

I knew then that we would be looking at a self supporting structure that would have to go up in a limited amount of time and fit into a variety of venues. I started with the maths; I knew it had to be 6 metres high to accommodate a circus hoop with space above and below it to do certain aerial tricks and the top frame needed to be at least 3 metres deep. Every designer has their own way of approaching a project and I knew with this one if I could get all the dimensions sorted first then I could really enjoy the aesthetic decisions later.

Victorian circus images are so rich with inspiration it was hard to choose which colours and textures to use. I wanted to soften the big steel structure I had created so I decided to make bunting from baby clothes which ties in well with the theme of the Foundling Children. I hand dyed them so there was a washed out slightly random quality to their colours. We hung them alongside some festoon to take the audience straight to that magical circus feel.

The costumes were initially all about what would be practical i.e. strong, washable "all in one" outfits that the cast could easily move in. These were then hand painted in a variety of colours, all in keeping with Victorian trapeze costumes. Apart from Phoebe who plays Hetty everyone else plays numerous roles all of which are extremely quick changes meaning I had to come up with lots of simple versions that would still clearly represent the character change and would be able to go over the top of their "all in ones" in about 5 seconds!

But for me the best thing about this project was that it was a massive team effort where so many people brought their skills and knowledge to help solve the jigsaw. My favourite day was when I visited the company Setup who were building the structure. Gwen, Wayne the Production Manager, all the staff at Setup and I, jumped, swung and dangled from the structure to see what it could take! That is when I really love being a designer.

Hetty Feather runs at the Duke of York's Theatre until 6 September, before embarking on a UK tour, for more information, click here.