Nineteenth-century playwrights created the 'well-made play' and filled it with home furnishings. By the twentieth century, the West End existed on a diet of plays with a beginning, a middle, an end, french windows and a drinks trolley. For the hapless designer, it was all less a case of concept, than of knowing where to shop.

Sofas still crop up now and again but, The Mousetrap aside, the days of phew-it's-demmed-cold-out-there acting against fake fireplaces have (almost) gone. Theatre design has returned to take a fundamentally active role. The success of the recent revival of the distinctly old-fashioned thriller Rope was largely due to the dramatic focus of Simon Higlett's vertiginous set, and more than one commentator has argued that designer Ian MacNeil is the real star of An Inspector Calls.

For those in search of really exciting theatre design, English National Opera has been the place to go. David Fielding's command of colour and space solved the notorious complexities of Simon Boccanegra, while his dramatic wit completely transformed Xerxes (and all subsequent Handel opera productions). Opinions vary as to the appropriateness of Nigel Lowery's design for Blond Eckbert (right), but its sheer inventiveness is unquestionable. If you thought painted cloths were a cop-out, think again. Tonight is the last night. Whatever you're doing, cancel.

(Photograph omitted)