Albion: Interview with the Designer

Have you ever walked into a pub in London and seen the following scene? There are only a few people in there, a couple of men on stools laughing, an old guy reading a red top, maybe the Landlady is doing a crossword at the bar, and they all look up at you as you walk in before resuming their activities. While there are plenty of places free to sit, you’re not sure what the protocol is or whether you’re welcome at all. You are definitely not one of them.

We spoke to James Button, the Albion designer, who told us that this is exactly how you should feel when you walk into the Bush Theatre Auditorium next week. ‘As the audience walks in across a sticky strip of carpet, the feeling should absolutely be that they are in a pub’ says James, ‘We’ve designed the space so that the moment of entering the auditorium is one of the biggest – you’re in a London pub (one that is not particularly well kept), there’s a bar with working taps, and your sight-line is dominated by a huge St George’s Flag’.

Before the show started Albion writer Chris Thompson sent James and the play’s director, Ria Parry, on a pub crawl along Bethnal Green Road. ‘This was the best thing we could have done!’ says James, ‘The set isn’t based entirely on just one of the pubs we saw, but there are definitely elements of several real life pubs’. What struck James and Ria was the juxtaposition of cultures, ‘we went into a pub with British and English flags draped around the outside and it was clearly saying “this is an English pub for British people”. But it was right opposite a sari shop. Even though people live next door to each other they are often contained to their own spaces.’

This is mirrored in the challenge of designing the space for Albion, ‘First the space clearly has to be a pub’ says James, ‘but secondly, there are scenes in the play that are explicitly not in a pub’, the problem to solve was how to ‘create the world of the pub in one place but also have clearly segregated areas that can be used in other scenes’. ‘I always react instinctively to the space’ James explains, ‘what we have with the Bush auditorium is a blank canvas. We could easily set this play in a pub and leave it at that, but we wanted to embrace the space that the Bush offers.’

We don’t want to give away too much about the set, however before James rushes back into the auditorium for tech rehearsals we insist that he gives us the story of finding the pub’s carpet. ‘The set was basically designed and dressed around budgeting for the carpet’ he says. ‘It had to be genuine carpet for pubs, you can get domestic carpet with similar patterns but not on a big enough scale. The carpet had to be right’. It turns out that pub carpet is quite an expensive buy. As Bush Technical Manager Neil Hobbs has pointed out, it’s meant to last for a very long time!