Let's Talk About Sets: Lez Brotherston on Show Boat

The award-winning designer discusses the process of staging a show with a huge boat at its heart

In Show Boat, people are living their lives along the Mississippi and a boat filled with performers comes into their lives and a show is staged. At the beginning of the piece there's a moment when you see the black chorus singing about how they work on the Mississippi whilst the white folks play. So Daniel Evans [the director] and I decided early on that the boat needed to have a kind of allure and a glamour but actually, when the lights went off, it was a bit of a rust bucket.

I wanted to see the front of the boat arriving and invading the space with a lot of colour and movement but when the show stops, it's just an illusion. It's then that you meet all the people backstage and realise their lives are just as hard as everybody else's.

I'd seen Opera North's production of Show Boat years ago and the boat never arrived, they did a side-on view and I thought that was a missed opportunity. As I was designing for the Sheffield space [at the Crucible] where there's a thrust stage, it seemed to be important that the boat came towards the audience head on and presented itself. Everything was influenced by the big paddle steamers on three tiers and we decided we could play the whole thing in, around and on the boat.

The design for Show Boat

I looked at old steam boats and show boats for inspiration and then I distilled it down to more of an abstract thing, something that is not really a proper representation of a show boat but something that could give me levels, stairs and a place where you can play out themes. Very often on a thrust stage you're limited to playing it all on the flat and I thought it was important to give the production some height.

The biggest challenge was finding a structure that would give us all the multiple locations. I was quite interested in the backstage life in the play so the biggest change we made was during the song "Life Upon The Wicked Stage". It's written to be sung on the banks as the character Ellie is talking to some fans but we moved it inside to make it seem like they're playing around in the dressing room. Once the production shifts to Chicago, the boat disappears and that was quite a hard thing to pull off on the Sheffield stage.

We very much wanted to compare the glittery showbiz life to the hard-working black chorus; we wanted the atmosphere to convey life and its harsh reality.

Show Boat runs at the New London Theatre until 27 August.