John Napier: Stages, Beyond the Fourth Wall

The first exhibition of works by the designer behind Cats and Les Mis

Celebrated costume and set designer John Napier, the visionary behind some of the longest-running musical theatre hits in London’s West End and on Broadway, including Miss Saigon, Cats, Les Misérables, Starlight Express, Sunset Boulevard, Equus and Birdsong, is holding the first exhibition of his work. Titled Stages, Beyond the Fourth Wall and held at the Towner gallery in Eastbourne, the show is formed of a sequence of sculptures, mixed-media paintings, videos and installations that create what Napier describes as “an entire walk-through experience”.

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Opening on Sunday November 29 (and running until Sunday January 31), it includes costume sketches from his most popular musicals, including Cats and Starlight Express, which will be available to buy as limited-edition signed prints (£370 each; Grizabella from Cats, first picture; Volta from Starlight, second picture). Napier has taken over the ground floor of the gallery and is approaching his exhibition in the same way he would a set: building walls and creating ramps, a sunken floor and a sculpture garden. Setting quite a precedent, his stage works have earned him membership of the American Academy of Achievement, the title of Royal Designer for Industry in 1996, and an honorary fellowship of the London Institute – plus a Bafta, five Tony Awards and four Oliviers.

Image: Julian Napier
Image: Julian Napier

Speaking from his studio in Polegate, close to his home between Lewes and Eastbourne in East Sussex, Napier jokes, “I’m trying to have some fun in my dotage!” He’s not playing it all for laughs, however, as the key piece in Stages is Endgame, which is inspired by Beckett’s play of the same name and also references Waiting for Godot. “It’s a triptych with a stage in the middle and a railway track going up it,” he says. “There’s a mud mound, in tribute to Beckett, some heroic warrior figures and some huge bronzes representing the three muses.”

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One especially recognisable piece up for sale is Equus, the sculpted horse head (third picture) in steel and leather from the eponymous show. Napier isn’t limited by one particular style in his work, so the minimalism of Equus contrasts with a spectacular helicopter from Miss Saigon (collage of sketches and maquettes, fourth picture). His materials vary from fibreglass, chrome, steel and leather to earth, moss, sand and concrete; prices for mixed-media works and sculptures range from £11,000 to £160,000.

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