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Designs on the new Phantom; The Phantom Of The Opera is as famous for its design as its beautiful score. As the 25th anniversary tour prepares to open, Karen Price asks set designer Paul Brown how he went about such an important task.

WHEN Paul Brown was asked by Sir Cameron Mackintosh to design the sets for The Phantom Of The Opera's 25th anniversary tour, his first reaction was to say, 'No!' "I thought it would be a bit of a kiss of death to try to redesign something which is everyone's favourite show - it's an icon and something which people own visually," he says.

But the man who's worked with some of the world's biggest opera companies eventually decided to accept the offer.

"It was vanity I suppose," he laughs. "I like a challenge."

Brown, who is originally from Cowbridge, admits that he had never actually seen the show which has been watched by more than 130 million people across the globe since it opened in October 1986.

"It made my job much easier not to have watched it as it's quite hard to redesign something which people love."

Instead, he went back to the original source material - Andrew Lloyd Webber's score and the novel on which the musical's based (Le Fantme de l'Opra by Gaston Leroux).

Brown began work on his designs about three years ago but it was a long process as he was juggling the commission with other work projects.

"I started by looking at the text and music - it gets under your skin and then you start to come up with images," he says.

"You also have to research the period in which it is based. I showed Cameron a small cardboard model quite early on and I backed up my ideas by waving my arms around a lot and explaining them passionately," he smiles.

The director, choreographer and lighting designer later came on board as Brown developed his ideas.

The sets were built at Bay Productions in Cardiff towards the end of last year.

"I was commuting between Wales and Sweden at the time because I was working on another production over there," says Brown, who now lives in Pembrokeshire.

"They were working to an accurate model so I would come back to do some weekly supervision.

I think if I'd been there every day they would have wanted to lynch me," he laughs. d The actual designs will remain a secret unti the tour officially opens at Theatre Royal in Plymouth on March 17 but Brown admits tha tweaks are being made during the current pre views. ilnat eas et "We're nearly there." Despite a hugely successful career which ha seen him working with companies like The Me in New York, La Scala in Milan and the Roya Opera House in Covent Garden, Brown says he had no real access to the theatre while growing up.

alegdn But during a gap year between school and university he went to work at the Sherman in Cardiff.

"I loved it and decided I wanted to work in theatre but I didn't know in which capacity," he says. ne "But I later met a South African designer there and was very impressed with what she did." e Brown later went to the University of S Andrews in Scotland where he studied Anglo Saxon Literature. St o "It was completely academic. One went to university to grow up back then rather than to learn a job.

"We were a much luckier generation. We were allowed to develop and flower into something and weren't shoe-horned into a specific job."

He moved on to a post-graduate course at the Riverside Studios in London in theatre design.

"It was run by a woman called Percy Harris who was 80 when we did the course. Her real name was Margaret but Olivier and Gielgud called her Percy. She was one of the first women to be taken seriously as a theatre designer. She was a wonderful woman - I had enormous respect and affection for her."

Brown's career started in pub theatre. "From there I got some work with the Royal Court and did a play called Road which ended up in New York with Kevin Bacon starring in it."

Sir Cameron approached him about the Phantom project after seeing a production called Marguerite which he designed.

Now Brown is counting down to the official opening and says he's feeling nervous.

"I always feel nervous - it's live theatre and so much can go wrong. But we've got a good chance I hope."


Paul Brown backstage at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth Picture: South West news service
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 9, 2012
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