Andy Phillips

Pugnacious but often mesmerising theatrical lighting designer
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Next year sees a West End revival of Brian Clark's Whose Life Is It Anyway? (with Kim Cattrall the latest in the endless line of US imports to the London stage). Will the visual aspect of this new production stand comparison with the 1978 original? That one owed much to the supportive and characteristically unshowy lighting of Andy Phillips, a major and influential figure in the British theatre of the later 20th century.

Andrew Phillips, lighting designer: born 30 December 1940; married 1969 Judy Liebert (one son; marriage dissolved 1974); died London 18 September 2004.

Next year sees a West End revival of Brian Clark's Whose Life Is It Anyway? (with Kim Cattrall the latest in the endless line of US imports to the London stage). Will the visual aspect of this new production stand comparison with the 1978 original? That one owed much to the supportive and characteristically unshowy lighting of Andy Phillips, a major and influential figure in the British theatre of the later 20th century.

Whose Life was stamped by some of what came to be somewhat lazily labelled as the Phillips "trademarks" - a visible lighting-rig, predominantly open white lighting and an extraordinarily pure, unerring sense of focus - although indeed much of the lucid best work of his busiest years took its tone from his candid, occasionally combative, personality.

This burly, pugnacious quality could make the West End's more self-important or conservative managements reluctant to use Phillips (their loss); however, in a long career his work also covered the ravishing Boudin-inspired seductiveness of the musical Gigi (Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue, 1985) with his most enduring collaborators, the director John Dexter and the designer Jocelyn Herbert, the shimmeringly beguiling provincial Russian landscapes of Turgenev's A Month in the Country (Albery, 1994) in Bill Bryden's production and the multi-coloured "showbiz" lighting he devised for the rock-concert style finale to Bryden's version of Michael Herr's Vietnam book Dispatches (National Theatre, 1989).

There was something of the born anarch in Phillips's personality. A clergyman's son, he was initially drawn to "an acting career" (much influenced by 1950s American movies) and after his education at Dr Challoner's Grammar School in sedate Amersham, he trained for the stage in Brighton at Florence Moore's Studio. It was in Brighton that he formed a young, dynamic company (Group One) as a challenge to the anodyne Theatre Royal's touring fare, with shoestring-budget productions mounted at the Co-op Hall.

A charismatic leader ("a handsome 20-year-old who smokes a good deal and dresses like Marlon Brando", according to the Brighton Evening Argus), he took the group to the Edinburgh Festival fringe in 1961 with Picasso's Desire Caught by the Tail and the committedly radical Fringe of Light by the actor-playwright Bill Owen which created quite a flurry of controversy and usefully exploitable publicity.

Less driven by an actor's ambition, at 22 Phillips landed in London where he worked variously as a prop-maker and as a stage-hand. In 1962 he stage-managed at Hampstead Theatre on a version of Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie, on the subsequent tour of which he worked on his first proper lighting. He learnt most of his craft - to him, as he always stressed, it was a craft rather than an art - as Dayman Electrician (he was paid 5s 3d an hour) at the Aldwych Theatre with a young Royal Shakespeare Company in residence, throughout 1963.

More by accident than design, in 1965 Phillips found his natural home. George Devine, sponsor to so many gifted young, had founded the English Stage Company at the Royal Court in 1956 and after a shaky start (rescued by Look Back in Anger), the Sloane Square operation was a powerhouse in 1960s theatre.

Beginning as Chief Electrician, gradually Phillips began to take on responsibility for lighting productions and he became integral to the ESC's aesthetic. Its creed - Jocelyn Herbert defined it for many when she spoke of it as "a way of life as well as an attitude to theatre" - essentially was based on Devine's near-sacerdotal conviction that any decision made on any production must stem from the author's text.

Between 1965 and 1972, he lit over 80 productions, working regularly with directors such as Lindsay Anderson, Bill Bryden, John Dexter, William Gaskill, Peter Gill and Anthony Page on work by Edward Bond (whose plays saw some of Phillips's finest, most unobtrusively enhancing contributions, his lighting fusing ideally with Bond's unblinking candour), John Osborne, D.H. Lawrence, David Storey and Arnold Wesker.

Phillips later wrote of his work at the Court and of the lessons he learnt there:

Subordination of design to the play was a lesson we all had to learn there; in my case it was subordination to the actors as well. My job was to light them . . . It's a craft that requires a lot of application, experience and patience.

Outside the subsidised theatre, Phillips's standards and methods - he refused to light without actors on the stage or to begin fixing cues until the technical rehearsal - inevitably led to accusations of arrogance or laziness, when working conditions outside musicals rarely allowed (and they have not significantly improved) sufficient time for work on the theatre's Cinderellas of lighting and sound. But, as Phillips argued:

I'm not lighting the floor or the scenery. I'm lighting six feet above the floor. I'm lighting faces, trying to blend them together.

With sympathetic collaborators, Phillips's work after leaving Sloane Square could be mesmerising. The triumvirate of Dexter, Herbert and Phillips produced an astonishing body of work in London (in both subsidised and commercial sectors) and New York. The hoary old myth that Herbert and Phillips were rigidly drab monochromists was regularly demolished (although it seemed always to grow up again) with Dexter productions including a Pygmalion (Albery, 1974) with Diana Rigg and Alec McCowen, Mrs Higgins's drawing-room a particular delight, glowing in William Morris tones, while perhaps they reached a collective peak with Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness (National, 1971).

This was staged on a simple bleached wooden platform against a dark "box" surround, but Herbert's richly textured and coloured Jacobean costumes and Phillips's beautifully gauged lighting plot made the evening seem a deeply colourful spectacle (Phillips always asserted that Herbert was the one designer who understood the true meaning of theatrical "magic"). The team also tamed the often intractable Olivier Theatre space at the National with their magisterial but powerfully human scrutiny of Brecht's Galileo (1980), with Phillips imbuing the copper astrolabe at the centre of Herbert's design with a resonant, burnished glow.

For Dexter, Phillips also contributed to (John Napier designed) one of the most iconic productions of its era, Peter Shaffer's Equus (National, 1973). Their partnership also covered a Goya-esque La Forza del Destino (Metropolitan Opera), a Broadway musical so disastrous that it never opened ( One Night Stand, about the tribulations of which Phillips, a good raconteur, could wax hilarious) and Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday (National, 1981) with a lovingly detailed design from Julia Trevelyan Oman.

With another legendary designer, Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Phillips and Dexter created a spellbinding production of Tony Harrison's version of Molière's Le Misanthrope set in the Gaullist era (National, 1973). Phillips loved to recall how Dexter boxed himself into a tight corner by leaving Diana Rigg as Célimène much too far downstage at the close, mischievously ordering Phillips to help him out by providing a lighting cue "which Jocelyn Herbert would hate". The critics raved about Phillips's solution, which left the star alone for a sensational exit, slowly walking upstage into inky blackness as the light faded from a vast window (Herbert loved it).

The often waspish and caustic Dexter could clash even with his closest collaborators, but fundamentally he enormously admired Phillips from their first Sloane Square partnership. He especially praised the way Phillips knew how to prepare and use a lighting-rig better than virtually anybody else around:

The light he creates with it defines the space and forces the actors to dominate it. It has a clarity which gives weight to space and has the effect of giving the actors height and stature.

There was often a storminess in Phillips's personal life to match some epic theatrical spats. He married the actress Judy Liebert - they met on David Storey's The Contractor at the Royal Court in 1969 - but they subsequently divorced. He and Glenda Jackson (they met on a less than triumphant RSC Hedda Gabler directed by Trevor Nunn) had a long-standing relationship. Together they co-produced (with Jackson starring as Vittoria and Phillips lighting) a disappointing modern-dress production of Webster's The White Devil (Old Vic, 1976).

In 1989 Phillips met his last - and very happy - attachment. The producer Jenny King, herself a feisty personality and with an ironic humour similar to Phillips's, coped wonderfully with his problems, not least his drinking, on which he cut down remarkably. There was a period of some professional drifting which may well have been connected to Dexter's sudden death in 1989; sadly Dexter and Phillips's final collaboration (joined by Herbert) was an anticlimactic and, most surprisingly, poorly staged Threepenny Opera on Broadway in 1989, with Sting a pallid Macheath. However, he returned to do some first-class work.

The director Peter Gill proved another ideal colleague and Phillips's work with him on such widely contrasted RSC projects as the intimate Richard Nelson play New England (The Pit, 1994) and the sweeping Habsburg Empire scale of John Osborne's A Patriot for Me (Barbican, 1995) had all the flair and subtlety of his best lighting.

He worked regularly too for King's Centreline company, which mainly created top-flight material for the touring circuit with occasional West End ventures. His productions included Victor Spinetti's A Very Private Diary (1989) on tour, the rumbustious Women on the Verge of HRT (Vaudeville, 1997), a vintage reappraisal of Hobson's Choice (2002) on tour and King's co-production of Auntie and Me (Wyndham's, 2003) with Alan Davies.

Phillips battled throat cancer throughout 2003. Happily - and with remarkable spirit - he went out on top form. This year saw striking collaborations with an established favourite designer (also much influenced by the Royal Court and by the line of British design reaching from the Motley trio through Jocelyn Herbert), Hayden Griffin, and the newer, younger director Paul Miller.

Their three projects were extremely contrasted, covering Richard Bean's comedy Honeymoon Suite (a final return for Phillips to the Royal Court), the major National Theatre success of Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads and, finally (and aptly experimentally), Lyn Coghlan's Mercy at the Soho Theatre.

Alan Strachan