Rob Howell creates sets for some of the biggest West End musicals, but he is just as keen on small-scale drama. The busy theatre designer talks to Nick Smurthwaite about budgets – and taking audiences on a journey

Even though he designed the West End’s most expensive ever musical, The Lord of the Rings, Rob Howell resists the notion that he has gained a place in the global premier league of stage designers. ‘I just think of myself as someone who gets the gig every now and then,’ says the self-effacing 41-year-old, whose latest project is Her Naked Skin, Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play at the National Theatre. ‘You just hang around and try not to fuck it up,’ he jokes.

Broodingly handsome, Howell looks as if he might have made a rather good Mr Darcy in different circumstances, but he says his creative destiny was pre-ordained from an early age. ‘My parents were keen West End theatregoers and they used to take me along when I was quite young,’ he says. ‘It felt exciting and sexy. By the age of 15 the penny dropped that there were people whose job it was to see to the scenery and lighting, and that it was somebody’s idea it should look a particular way.’

While his peers were idly pondering their futures, Howell was busy steering his education towards theatre design, with his sights set firmly on Central St Martins College of Art and Design. When they rejected him, he turned his attentions to the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, where the faculty was run by the much-admired Christopher Morley.

Howell graduated from there in 1989, and at the same time Morley, his mentor and inspiration, was invited by the Royal Shakespeare Company to design a production of Coriolanus. ‘Chris asked me to assist him, so I went straight from college into this incredibly privileged position,’ he says. ‘Then the job of resident assistant designer at the RSC came up. I spent the next two-and-a-half seasons assisting all the top visiting designers, as well as seeing how one of the most important theatre buildings in the country worked.’

He left the RSC in Stratford to come to London as a freelance assistant before gaining sufficient confidence to branch out on his own, with commissions from fringe companies and regional theatres. ‘My pay was suddenly reduced by a fifth so I had a difficult few years, but I loved the variety of working for a fashionable, low-budget place like the Gate in London one week, then switching to the polite world of Chichester the next,’ he says.

He claims he has always felt equally comfortable working in both the subsidised and commercial sectors – which explains a CV that includes projects as diverse as Brian Friel’s Faith Healer at the Almeida, the Madness musical Our House in the West End, and William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida at the National, for which he won an Olivier Award for best set design in 2000.

Howell has also dipped a toe into the contrasting worlds of stand-up (two Eddie Izzard tours) and opera, notably a controversial 2002 staging of Sophie’s Choice – originally a novel and then a film – in which he was called upon to put Auschwitz on the stage of the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden.

Asked to design the £12.5m musical version of The Lord of the Rings, Howell was both excited and intimidated. ‘I didn’t want to base it on the films, so I went back to JRR Tolkien’s book, and relied on my own impressions,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t realise, until we opened in Toronto, just how exposed I was. I was saying, “This is what I find frightening”, rather than “This is what you may find frightening”. But in the end I was pleased we achieved a different look from the films.’

Her Naked Skin, his current project, is the world premiere of a play set in London during the time of the suffragette movement. ‘One of the great pleasures of this job is to find out about unfamiliar times and places,’ says Howell. ‘I’ve never done anything Edwardian before, nor anything about the suffragettes, so it has been another great learning process. The play has an epic sweep, but it is made up of a lot of short scenes, switching from Regent Street to the House of Commons to Holloway prison. I needed to smooth the journey for the audience, otherwise it might have been a bumpy ride.’ Working with the veteran director Howard Davies, with whom he has worked on three previous National productions, Howell is using the Olivier auditorium’s revolve, and another structure that floats and turns above the revolve, to achieve the required level of ‘fluidity and elasticity’.

The National gig will be followed by a revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, which entails transforming the Old Vic’s classic proscenium arch into a theatre in the round, and a new production of Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Several leading stage designers have tried their hands at directing. Would he ever go down that route? ‘I wouldn’t rule it out, but it has never cropped up. I think directing can be quite lonely. I think I enjoy working with other people too much,’ he says.

Her Naked Skin is in rep at the National Theatre until 24 September

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