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

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The Independent Culture

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."