Cinderella man: Tom Pye on designing sets for Covent Garden

If Tom Pye greets me on the doorstep of his studio in south London like an old friend, it’s because I am. We both studied for a degree in Theatre Design at Wimbledon School of Art in the late 1980s, and Tom is one of a handful of us who went on to enjoy an international career designing sets and costumes for plays, television, opera and dance. His sets for Philip Glass’ Akhnaten at English National Opera can currently be seen at the London Coliseum.

Tom Pye with the Cinderella Palace set at the ROH Production Workshop in Thurrock, January 2023

© Andrej Uspenski

Tom is best known to the public for the costumes he created for the television series Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones, but I’m here to talk to him about Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, for which he is designing the sets for The Royal Ballet’s new production. It opens with a gala performance on 27th March.

“Do you remember we did Cinderella as a college project at Wimbledon?”, I ask him. “I do!”, he laughs. “I did it all Elizabethan and I remember I was quite pleased with the Ugly Sisters I came up with! We were learning our craft.

“Actually, I only really started to design for ballet in the past couple of years,” he continues. “My first were for Anna Karenina and The Nutcracker with the choreographer Yuri Possokhov.”

The Cinderella Palace set constructed at the ROH Production Workshop in Thurrock, January 2023

© Andrej Uspenski

How, then, did he become involved in the world of ballet? “It was through Ashley Wheater”, the director of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. “He knows Benjamin Britten’s opera Death in Venice because he appeared in it as a child and he came to see the production I did with Deborah Warner. On the back of that, he suggested me to Yuri Possokhov, and out of the blue Yuri asked me to design two of his ballets. I like Yuri a lot and I liked the team he brought together to work on his ballets; we collaborated really well.”

Cinderella, however, is Tom’s first commission for a major British ballet company. “I’ve done some contemporary dance things before, but Kevin O’Hare approached me for Cinderella.” O’Hare, the director of The Royal Ballet, has put Tom together with Alexandra Byrne, the Oscar-winning costume designer, with whom he is working for the first time. Tom is also collaborating on the production with lighting designer David Finn and video designer Finn Ross; the illusions will be devised by Chris Fisher.

So what is it like, designing such an established ballet and one that has such a notable history with The Royal Ballet? “Little by little, it became obvious to me I needed to study the ground plans of the previous productions to get things right,” he replies. “I have turned some things on their head, but other things, like the fireplace, the table and the chairs, are where they always were because Ashton’s steps dictate that. I watched all the archive films of the ballet, so I knew I needed to keep the ‘footprints’ all the same.”

The Cinderella Palace set constructed at the ROH Production Workshop in Thurrock, January 2023

© Andrej Uspenski

Tom has been working closely with Wendy Ellis Somes, who is responsible for staging the choreography of Cinderella. “Wendy has been very helpful with the changes I wanted to introduce and it was useful that we live near each other in Essex – we had our initial design meetings there. Flowers and nature are very present in the design concept and the project has been inspired by Wendy’s beautiful garden. I’ve also been looking at the magical fairytale illustrations of Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham: nature is present in all these illustrations, but I’ve made nature ‘bigger’ in the production. There are changes in scale, with people coming through vast flowers and huge meadow grasses framing everything. I’ve set it in a non-specific period, but it has that essential fairytale feel.

“I’ll probably get some flak for what I’ve done,” he chuckles. “It’s easy to design modern operas because people don’t know them and have no expectations. It’s very different with such a familiar ballet, but there’s a reason for the changes I’ve made and I’ve tried hard to showcase and celebrate what’s already there. Hopefully my sets will show off what is so good about the choreography. I also hope people will see things in it they hadn’t noticed before.” He adds that the fairies are going to be spectacular, as will the transformation scenes (I’ve sworn to keep them a secret before the production opens).

“It’s been a real joy working with the production team of the Royal Opera House – all the prop makers and the scene painters. They are brilliant and are always coming up with suggestions about how things might work. In fact,” he adds, “I also find both ballet dancers and opera singers very good to work with, especially with costumes. Dancers are usually very straightforward, only asking me, ‘Can I dance in it?’”

The Cinderella Palace set constructed at the ROH Production Workshop in Thurrock, January 2023

© Andrej Uspenski

“Learning about designing for ballet has also helped me find costume solutions for actors”, Tom says. “For example, with Suranne in Gentleman Jack, she originally wore a period corset, but because her role was so physical, she kept getting uncomfortable welts where the corset was rubbing. I came up with a ballet corset for her instead, which had the right period shape, but meant she could be much more active. Also, some of the actors during the filming of the second series became pregnant, so, for their comfort, I devised a kind of romantic tutu underskirt they could wear that had a hole to hide their pregnancy. That’s why it’s so interesting for me not just to work within one field. I enjoy the change from one art form to the other, and it’s also true one art form informs the other.”

I wonder how long the production has been in the planning? “Cinderella was put back by the pandemic by at least two years,” Tom reveals. “The past few years have been a hateful schedule for me because now there is this massive bottleneck, with all my shows happening at once. It’s been a tricky couple of years with big projects, but I think Cinderella is the last of those that have been delayed.”

Turning to the revival of Akhnaten, which is being performed at the London Coliseum until 5th April, I ask Tom how he approached the design. “The main thing for me was to make the two Ancient Egyptian religions different. When Akhnaten came to power, he brought with him a whole new religion, so I wanted there to be a dramatic difference between them.”

Tom Pye’s set for ENO’s Akhnaten

© Jane Hobson

“For me, it was about making the old religion a symbol of an old, decaying world”, Tom continues. “When preparing for it I looked at lots of productions of Aida, because Phelim McDermott, the director, and I didn’t want Akhnaten to look anything like that! We wanted something dirtier, and we also wanted to explore the strangeness of Ancient Egyptian culture. I enjoy using space as a way to convey a story or an emotion, so I played with the idea of not allowing the audience to see much of the stage during the first act, and then seeing the whole of it in Act II.”

Just a day or two before this interview, Tom was voted Best Set Designer at the WhatsOnStage Awards for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s My Neighbour Totoro and he has plans stretching out before him for the year ahead. Coming up is a soon-to-be-announced stage production for the West End and then Renegade Nell, a Disney project by writer Sally Wainwright, creator of Happy Valley and Gentleman Jack. “It’s a kind of big road movie with highway robbers, but all set in 1705,” Tom teases. But right now his focus is on Cinderella. I’m certain it’s going to be a huge success.

Akhnaten runs at the London Coliseum until 5th April. The Royal Ballet’s Cinderella will run at the Royal Opera House from 27th March to 3rd May.

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