Multi-faceted designer Alison Brookes is equally at home forecasting trends and knitwear consulting as she is creating costumes for fringe theatre. It’s a juggling act that she performs with flair, discovers Sarah Frater
London’s fringe theatre is many things, but a money spinner it is not. Every night across the capital, dozens of pubs and small-scale venues stage new plays and reinvent old ones. It’s a vibrant scene, run by people more interested in art than money, which is just as well because while a few receive a tuppence of public funding, most survive on budgets the size of particle physics.
‘Budget?’ hoots Alison Brookes, the costume designer behind The Union Theatre’s sell-out all-male production of The Mikado. ‘I had to beg and borrow to create the costumes. Friends from the fashion world donated fabric off-cuts, and I trawled costume fairs and thrift shops for the vintage kimonos.’
Other costumes – the ankle-skimming trousers and plainvests – came from budget retailers, while low-cost theatrical suppliers provided the ballet flats that are dead-ringers for oriental slippers.
It wouldn’t be true to say you don’t notice the thrift. The Union Theatre seats just 50, meaning the audience is so up-close they couldn’t miss the age and condition of the costumes. Cleverly, Brookes didn’t try to tart things up, but worked the scrimping to her advantage.
‘I went for the idea of schoolboys dressing up,’ she explains. ‘The look was like they’d raided a dressing-up box, and were dancing and singing in a school production somewhere. School costumes would always be a bit ad hoc. I didn’t try to disguise it.’
As well as the tiny budget, another constraint was The Union’s miniscule performance space (it’s too small to call a stage). That meant Brookes couldn’t use conventional props – big drapes and furniture were no-nos. Instead, she accented the actor-singers with hints of the Orient. They carry fans and parasols, which Brookes chose for their almost toy-like quality, and the stage is hung with coloured lanterns and darting butterflies (echoes of Puccini’s Butterfly, perhaps). This kept the floor uncluttered, a vital practicality, but also provided the audience with clear visual cues. ‘I gave the costumes a strong red base colour – the colour of Japan,’ Brookes says. ‘It wasn’t a typical production of The Mikado, so the last thing I wanted was to create a Titipu of sugary pastels and prettiness.’
Brookes’ design ideas were completely in sync with director Thom Southerland’s treatment of the Gilbert and Sullivan gem. Mercifully, he banned the cod Japanese accents and camping about woefully common in G&S productions, and he didn’t try to make the heroine Yum-Yum and her older rival Katisha look like women. Instead, the male actor-singers were just themselves, an approach which gave the show an unexpected poignancy.
Brookes is in The Union’s bar, a watering hole that doubles as café and box office. Everyone squeezes past each other, drinks and tickets in hand, and backstage is so close to front-of-house that you can hear the singers warming up. Brookes is on duty during the run, adjusting costumes and making repairs to the fragile vintage fabric. ‘It’s a pretty physical show,’ she says. ‘Lots of dancing. Things get damaged. Up close you can see the stitching.’ There is a troubadour mood in which Brookes seems at home – strange, perhaps, given that she didn’t train in the theatre. Her background is fashion, with a degree in knitwear design from the University of Brighton and a long career in the rag trade, including a stint as womenswear knitwear design manager at Marks & Spencer. She currently juggles her theatre work with knitwear consultancies for high street retailers, trend-forecasting, and a project with Fig Leaf, the online lingerie store.
It’s a busy time. As well as The Mikado’s success, which includes not only the London run, but also talk of taking the show to New York, Brookes is designing The Union’s upcoming production of Sweeney Todd. ‘My first thoughts on this are a very dark production, with lots of leather and texture,’ she says. ‘[The recent] Tim Burton film version was more or less in the period Sondheim set his musical. We don’t want to be over-shadowed.’
And with that, Brookes heads backstage leaving you wondering why she’d be worried.
Sweeney Todd is at The Union Theatre, Union Street, Southwark, London SE1, from 12 November to 6 December