Tom Piper took a

stifled interest in

science and applied

it to the theatre --

and is now hailed

as a master

designer. He tells

Jackie McGlone

of his beginnings

TOM PIPER is a Great British Hope, according to one English

broadsheet. ''A rising star in the arts firmament,'' it says on the fax

from the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, where the 29-year-old designer's latest

work was revealed this week in David Kane's pitch-black comedy,

Dumbstruck. Tall and bespectacled, Piper looks more like an earnest

young boffin than a neurotic theatrical type. He seems so normal, so

ordinary, as he sits opposite you in his plaid shirt, sipping a glass of

cider. Two safety-pins dangling from his navy-blue waistcoat are the

only clue that he has dashed in from a costume fitting.

It's all a bit of a hands-on operation at the Tron, he says, holding

out a set of incarnadined digits which would not shame Macbeth. He has

been dyeing costumes, as well as painting the set and, frankly, if he

never saw another dark green gloss door he'd be a happy man. But that's

the fringe for you. And the fringe is undoubtedly where Tom, Tom, the

Pipers' son has done his best work since graduating from Trinity

College, Cambridge, in 1988. Although it should be pointed out that he

returns to Glasgow trailing clouds of critical glory from the Royal

National Theatre and the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh.

Dumbstruck -- ''more kitsch than kitchen-sink'' -- is Piper's fifth

show this year. He has designed, in rapid succession, Sacred Hearts for

Communicado and Brian Cox's acclaimed touring production of Ibsen's The

Master Builder, following its genesis at Edinburgh's Lyceum where all

those people who said they loved the smell of the wood from the set

might be interested to learn that it was actually painted plywood. Then

came Pinter's The Birthday Party for the National, a children's opera

for 100 kids, Julius Caesar Jones, at Sadler's Wells, and now here he is

back at the Tron, where he had such a brilliant success during Mayfest

last year when he created a ruined church for Michael Boyd's redemptive


Coming straight from the National to the Tron has obviously been good

for the soul. When you work in the subsidised theatre, you have this

enormous budget and an awful lot of back-up. Here at the Tron, they have

one-tenth of the staff of the National Theatre, so everybody gets very,

very exhausted and the pace of the work slows down accordingly. On

Dumbstruck, for instance, he has not only been painting, dressing the

set, and dyeing shirts, he has also been working on plywood (again) to

make it look like real wood (for the floorboards under which something

nasty lurks).

At the National, you swan around being far more executive, having

meetings, and talking to people. Whereas when you are at the Tron,

stuffing yourself with late-night comfort food, and banging nails into

bits of wood, you sometimes feel you would like someone else to do this

for you because they would be better at it. But then, Piper adds

quickly, he does like the hands-on approach -- it's almost certainly

something to do with his background because as a child he was allowed to

try things out, to rush around, and to make a mess. The only son of the

art historian and museum director, the late Sir David Piper, and the

romantic novelist and playwright, Anne Piper, he had what sounds like an

idyllic childhood. A late child -- he has three older sisters, the

youngest of whom is the actress Emma Piper and 13 years his senior -- he

grew up almost as an only child.

Born in London, where his father was director of the National Portrait

Gallery, he lived in Cambridge from the age of two to eight, where Sir

David ran the Fitzwilliam, and then moved to Oxford when his father took

over the Ashmolean. While dad ran museums, his mother wrote romantic

comedies and was a reader for the Royal Court, so there were Royal Court

workshops in the family home in the early sixties, ''with people like

Edward Bond and George Devine, but that was all before I was born''.

In Cambridge, the family lived over the shop, so to speak, in a flat

which had a secret door that let you into a corridor by the armoury

section in the Fitzwilliam, and here the seven-year-old Piper could run

around to his heart's content. Downstairs, there was a carpenter called

-- he swears -- Mr Woodman, ''a classic old carpenter, balding with

little tufty bits on the sides, a brown overall and a pencil, and he

used to let me bang bits of wood together, so I did quite a lot of

making things from an early age''. This is obviously where Piper first

discovered his trade-mark love of wood.

Certainly he was never the sort of boy who had a newt collection, he

says, although his father hoped his son would follow in the footsteps of

his physicist grandfather, Professor S. H. Piper, and become a

scientific boy wonder. ''But I was much more the sort of child who would

announce that I was off to extend the attic. My parents never tried to

stop me and I'd go up and hammer nails into wood until I got bored.''

Piper was also given to building five-storey treehouses in willow trees

around the farm and sometimes thinks he has gone on building them all

over British stages ever since.

There is a bit of him that enjoys the fantasy of all that. ''In a way,

I do think that has affected my aesthetic: my work is always a bit rough

round the edges, it is hardly ever about intersecting clean lines, it's

always a bit warped and twisted. As to the wood thing, I love it because

it just seems that other things belong to the theatre -- painted cloth,

for instance, belongs to illusion. In a way you are always being

illusory, but it's more interesting for me to create real things to play

games with than the game being that I am deceiving you into believing

this is real.

''You know in The Master Builder that this not a real room, but the

units themselves have an integrity, almost like a solid block of

sculpture, then you bring them together and turn them into a room and

break them apart again like Lego to make a totally different space, so

you are asking people to accept these as imaginative toys to be played

with, which goes back to childhood I suppose. I mean I was terribly

lucky as a child because there were all these barns I could play in,''

he recalls.

His parents also rented space to a local sculptor, Michael Black,

''one of those eclectic kind of guys who spend half their time building

beautiful rowing boats or carving heads for the front of the Sheldonian.

He laid on an opening party ceremony which involved building a giant

elephant, a classic piece of junk sculpture with a huge ventilation tube

for a trunk, which I remember riding through the streets of Oxford when

I was 10. He was always doing quirky things and was a fun person to be


Despite all this boyish joinery work and attendant grazed knees, at

Cambridge Piper read natural sciences for two years, then switched to

art history in which he got his degree, followed by postgraduate studies

in theatre design at the Slade. ''I had no burning desire to be in the

theatre,'' he insists, although he skipped his last term at the Slade to

assist on Peter Brook's Tempest because by then he had become convinced

that the one thing no-one can teach you is how to be a theatre designer

-- ''you can't train people to be imaginative. You can build immaculate

model after model, but they will have no soul. If you haven't got a feel

for what theatre is about, then you are not going to produce good work

and the teaching at the Slade was very limited''. Somehow though he

seems to have gone on to bring the appliance of science to theatre --

''in a sort of reverse process''.

Science was his first love, he says, partly because he had an utterly

inspirational biology teacher who made it exciting. ''I loved hearing

about the discovery of things like DNA and reading books like The Double

Helix. It seemed there was this incredibly imaginative world out there

and that you could make brilliant discoveries and hope that one day you

would be the one to find a cure for cancer which seemed to be the

pinnacle thing you could do.''

Disillusion rapidly set in when Piper got to university and suddenly

became aware of the realities of science as a profession rather than a

vocation -- ''I didn't want to end up as one of science's fluff pickers,

the people round the edges who spend their lives proving some small

sub-department of a theory that somebody else has come up with. It

seemed science had lost all its boldness and excitement and that the

lecturers had also lost their joy in the subject. They talked about DNA,

this beautiful, wonderful system, and yet they were so boring, and all

that combined to make me start doing practical things in the theatre.''

At university, Piper and his old schoolfriend from Oxford, Sam Mendes,

were the whiz-kid designer-director team of the 1980s in Cambridge

theatre. Mendes is another Great White Hope of British Theatre, for whom

Piper designed The Birthday Party at the National, now running the most

glamorous theatre in London, the Donmar Warehouse, as well as working

for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which Piper joins in the summer to

design The Broken Heart -- Michael Boyd will direct and it'll star

Boyd's Macbeth, Iain Glen. In their student days Mendes and Piper did

about 13 shows together, storming up to the Edinburgh festival, with new

faces like Tim Firth in Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the


Piper estimates he designed more than 30 shows in three years, banging

together one set after another and writing his weekly essay at 4am. ''I

just got hooked on the practicalities of theatre and would average about

three hours' sleep a night for eight weeks to get a show on. We did

these ridiculous 72-hour fit-ups on whisky and aspirins and Mars bars.

Now I feel I have done all that, but there's an awful lot of martyrdom

in the theatre -- the Tron's quite good at it, too -- where people make

you feel you have to be up all night to do things. I'm just so against

it. I find it terribly unconstructive and I don't really like it any

more. There's a lot of guilt in the theatre and I don't see the need for


Nowadays, as the father of four-month-old Rachel -- his wife Caroline

is a Scot whom he met at university -- he says he is much more

interested in fighting to keep a normal life. ''I think it is very

important if in your work you are trying to reflect and relate to real

life and real people, to lead a happy family life.''

* Dumbstruck is at the Tron, Glasgow, until May 22. The Birthday Party

is now running in repertoire at the Royal National Theatre, London.

Booking details for The Broken Heart from the RSC on 0789 296655.