The Hartlepool Monkey: How a set can tell its own story

The show opens in Stratford ahead of a UK tour

When looking at projects to work on, I try to find shows with fantastical or unusual elements in them. I really enjoy puppetry – either puppets as actors or other worldly creatures – or stories with unusual theatrical elements. I've been very fortunate for the bulk of my work to be with companies with whom I now have long standing relationships, like Les Enfant Terribles with whom I did my first professional show, The Terrible Infants ten years ago. It's now returning to Wilton's Music Hall. I also work a lot with Smoking Apples, who are currently touring a show I worked with them on called In Our Hands that uses puppets to explore the subject of trawler fishing.

Gyre & Gimble is another really exciting relationship, and our team for The Hartlepool Monkey goes all the way back to The Elephantom, which means every department knows how to create really exciting and sympathetic designs for the show. Music, sound, lighting and puppetry coming together to make a technically rich and atmospheric show.

For the set I've designed for The Hartlepool Monkey, all the elements on stage are constantly being shifted and moved and are active in the story. We were fortunate to have the set available to us at the beginning of rehearsals, which meant we could adapt and work with it in an unprecedented way. At the start of rehearsals, instead of presenting the actors with a model box, we gave them a tour of the set. The design was created with versatility in mind, and having it early on has meant we could shuffle pulleys and hooks and counter weights around to create spaces and images which wouldn't have been possible in a traditional model box design and can only be created through play.

The set is both intimate and spacious, overbearing and playful

We’re expecting the show to have a long and exciting life, just like The Terrible Infants and In Our Hands, as it's out on tour it will be a really good chance to see in in a variety of different spaces, and think about further refinements for the future.

The set I've created is both intimate and spacious, overbearing and playful. It's deceptively simple and playful considering how much is going on behind the scenes and often within them. The whole space and design is very manual involving ropes and pulleys, and the cast actively manipulating them. This is both for practical reasons, to create a set which moves and creates different spaces for each scene, and for the aesthetic, which incorporates a lot of the nautical qualities of the scenes and settings of the piece. The whole space is very weather-beaten, salt stained floor, angular and wooden shapes, capturing the essence of shipwrecks, beachside fortifications and coastal groynes, which complement the soft and malleable sails that are used to create the new spaces on stage. We also have a variety of tea crates and barrels that are multi-use and play a variety of roles, as do our cast.

It's an illustrative approach, big things are said with lightness

To balance the strong emotional message and desperation of the story I’ve taken a very illustrative approach to the set and characters to allow big things to be said with lightness. The characters and costumes are larger than life but have two sides: as storytellers who carry us through the story and recognise the emotional journey we're taking, and the somewhat unpleasant characters that push the narrative forward; and the multiuse objects and set elements on stage help us to express this duality of story within a story.

The Hartlepool Monkey opens at the Stratford Circus Arts Centre on 19 September and then tours until 18th November.