Behind the scenes: Bob Crowley's set designs have wowed audiences the world over

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

From the African jungle where Tarzan swings through the trees to the pea-souper skies of London where Mary Poppins floats on high, Bob Crowley's set designs have been the backdrop for some of the biggest theatrical hits to grace the West End and Broadway.

In the course of his 30-year career, Crowley has won five Tony Awards (for Aida, Carousel, The History Boys, Mary Poppins and Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia) and has designed over 20 National Theatre and 25 RSC productions, as well as numerous operas, ballets and musicals. His sketches, models and photographs of some of his personal favourite creations over the years are pictured here.

His latest project is co-directing and designing Fram with the poet-playwright Tony Harrison at the National Theatre – a challenge that is, says Crowley, "more daunting than most". The epic dramatic poem tells the tale of Fridtjof Nansen, an extraordinary Norwegian explorer turned Renaissance man.

In 1893, Nansen set out to conquer the North Pole in his enormous customised ship, Fram ("Forward"), abandoning it two years later to continue the journey on skis. A year later he and his suicidal companion Johansen were discovered living in a tiny hut, eating walruses, by a British expedition team. The two men had travelled further north than anyone else in history.

Nansen then reinvented himself as "the first celebrity fundraiser, the first Bob Geldof", says Crowley, coordinating famine relief in the USSR following the First World War and, with the help of his "Nansen passport", ensuring the safe passage of thousands of Russians to the West, among them Chagall, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov and Anna Pavlova.

"There's nothing remotely domestic about this play – or about Tony's mind," says Crowley, who must grapple with a script that moves from Hampstead dinner parties to the North Pole, fitting in a ballet choreographed by Wayne McGregor and a visit to Westminster Abbey along the way.

Brought up on a farm in Cork, Ireland, Crowley and his younger brother, John (the acclaimed director of The Pillowman), had a love of theatre instilled in them from an early age by their parents. Having learned his craft at art school and the Bristol Old Vic, Crowley's first notable production was A Midsummer Night's Dream, starring the late Paul Schofield, at the National in 1982. The rest of the decade was spent at the RSC where in 1986 he worked on Howard Davies' production of Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

"There's always one show that changes your life – and that was the tipping point for me," says Crowley. "It was a huge success and went to New York. And I've been backwards and forwards ever since." In the 1990s, he worked mainly at the National under Sir Richard Eyre. "I did Shakespeare for 10 years and at the end of it I just wanted to do contemporary plays and work with living writers."

As well as Fram, Crowley is working on a lavish production of Don Carlos, set to open at the Royal Opera House in June, and has painted the six abstract canvases that frame Vanessa Redgrave's monologue in The Year of Magical Thinking, which arrives at the National from Broadway at the end of this month. "I was incredibly nervous because it was very exposing. I had nothing to hide behind. But then Joan Didion wasn't hiding behind anything either as she told the story."

After 30 years of conjuring up theatrical lands of make-believe, does Crowley yearn for the hi-tech special effects of another medium? "No. I don't want to get behind the camera or anything like that. The stage is where I'm happiest. You can do anything," he replies. "I really think that the stage is capable of taking you wherever you want to go."

'Fram', National Theatre, London SE1 (020-7452 3000), 10 April to 22 May; it is part of the Travelex £10 season

Best in show: Crowley's top five sets

Mourning Becomes Electra, National Theatre, 2003

Helen Mirren and Eve Best starred in Howard Davies' acclaimed production of Eugene O'Neill's 1931 play. "This is a particular favourite of mine. It's set in a huge plantation house, directly after the American Civil War, and is a real potboiler of a play about murder and incest. It was all set on the porch – there's a little model of Helen Mirren – and all the walls shifted and moved. This whole ceiling flew in at one point and created the deck of a ship."

His Girl Friday, National Theatre, 2003

Zoe Wanamaker and Alex Jennings starred as newshound and editor in this comic adaptation of Howard Hawks' film, directed by Jack O'Brien. "We wanted to reference the fact that the roots of this play were in the cinema. We created a set that looked like a sound stage so that when the audience walked in, they would feel like they were on the back lot of a film studio in Los Angeles. We were playing around with film lights and all that kind of thing."

The History Boys, National Theatre, 2004

Nicholas Hytner's production has famously gone on to break box-office records both in the West End and on Broadway. Crowley's Yorkshire grammar school features wipe-clean furniture, unforgiving strip lighting and a pumping 1980s soundtrack. "I had a great time doing this. It was a riot from beginning to end with those boys. It was a very simple set. It's just a series of classrooms. I tried to make it as witty and as light on its feet as Alan Bennett's script."

Mary Poppins, Prince Edward theatre West End, 2004

Crowley won a Tony and was nominated for two Oliviers for his set and costume designs for the musical directed by Sir Richard Eyre and produced by Cameron Mackintosh. "I illustrated this set and I don't normally do that. I decided to do a series of black-and-white drawings because I loved the ink drawings by Mary Shepard in the original story. I drew them on a kind of tissue paper, so it all had a grey, foggy London pallor about it. And we used lots of silhouettes – I love silhouettes."

Tarzan, Richard Rodgers Theatre Broadway, 2006

Crowley directed and designed this musical version of Tarzan, which featured songs by Phil Collins. "This is from the opening scene and it's what I call my Samuel Taylor Coleridge moment – 'a painted ship upon a painted ocean'. I painted the ship on to a piece of silk so that the whole thing would turn and twist. And then inside the cabin you suddenly saw Lord and Lady Greystoke holding the baby who becomes the young Tarzan."

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project