The secret of great sets? Less is more

Great sets can be simple, but they must fulfil two basic functions: relevance and ease.
Don Giovanni, ENO, November 2010

How not to do it... the set for the ENO's recent production of Don Giovanni featured 'the ubiquitous sliding walls'. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

When was the last time you looked up the name of the set designer in your theatre programme? I did so only last week, at the first night of the Young Vic’s new production of Vernon God Little. Tanya Ronder’s musical adaptation of DBC Pierre’s dark, witty and weird Booker-winning novel, which debuted to good reviews four years ago under director Rufus Norris, is back with the same creative team. It is still a fun night out, with a zany, addictive energy and another strong young cast – Joseph Drake and Lily James play the lead misfits with winning sincerity – but it also has more than a hint of the drama-school showcase. This is of course intentional, chiming as it does with Vernon’s scrappy, youthful inner world, but at times it is simply a bit amateurish and annoying.

Never more so when it comes to the set. Designer Ian MacNeil’s makeshift mobile scenery – constantly wheeling sofas, sliding walls, a shopping-trolley police van, a Mexican bar that transforms into a truck – initially comes across as charmingly ingenious, but two-and-a-half hours on is more like infuriating white-trash Tetris. The furiously paced plot falters as another bit of Blue Peter-esque property is shunted around; the songs start to feel like filler for the tech team; a cumbersome harness dilutes Vernon’s dramatic near-death scene.

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