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Obituaries

Alan Tagg, 74; Set Designer Known for Eye for Detail

November 17, 2002|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Alan Tagg, a prominent British theater set designer whose best-known work included the shabby bed-sitting room in the original 1956 Royal Court Theatre production of John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger," has died. He was 74.

Tagg, whose nearly four-decade career spanned London's West End and Broadway, died of undisclosed causes Nov. 4 in a London nursing home. He had been in frail health.

Known as a designer with an eye for detail, Tagg designed sets for the National Theatre, the Chichester Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company and many of Alan Ayckbourn's West End plays -- including Ayckbourn's 1970 "How the Other Half Loves," in which a single living room doubled for the upscale and downscale couples (a transformation made by changing the cushions on the sofa).

Tagg's credo for theatrical decor was that it should never draw attention to itself: Scenery should serve the play with a minimum of distraction, "just as long as the actors don't bump into it."

That wasn't quite the case with Tagg's set for Osborne's "Look Back in Anger," which was so realistically cluttered with household items that the actors found it difficult to move without running into the bed, the ironing board and other set decorations.

Tagg also did the sets for Osborne's 1957 play "The Entertainer," starring Laurence Olivier, which moved on to the West End.

Among his other Royal Court sets were the slum interiors for John Arden's 1958 "Live Like Pigs" and the sparsely furnished jungle hut for Willis Hall's 1959 play about Japanese prisoners of war, "The Long and the Short and the Tall."

One of the first designers to devise scenery for amphitheaters, Tagg achieved one of his biggest successes with a 1965 production of Arthur Wing Pinero's "Trelawney of the Wells" at Chichester.

With no drop curtain to hide a major scene change, Tagg had Victorian footmen in shirt sleeves calmly remove tables and chairs, roll up the carpet and lower a chandelier, turning the modest lodgings into an upscale house.

The enthralled audience responded to the transformation with applause.

Tagg's decor for Ayckbourn's "Way Upstream" for the National Theatre in 1982 was more problematic: It included a large water tank, whose erection and dismantling sometimes caused it to leak.

He was nominated for a London Theatre Critics Award for his work on the Royal Shakespeare Company's acclaimed 1970 revival of Dion Boucicault's "London Assurance."

The shy, mild-mannered Tagg was considered the designer of choice for stars such as Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr and Maggie Smith.

His designs for Broadway included Peter Shaffer's 1966 "Black Comedy," for which Tagg received a Tony nomination when it was transferred to Broadway; and the 1990 "Lettice and Lovage."

Born in Sutton-in-Ashfield in central England in 1928, Tagg studied at Mansfield College of Art and then trained at the Old Vic Theatre School, directed by George Devine and Michel St.-Denis.

Tagg, who joined other former students in founding Devine's Royal Court Company, began his career as a designer in 1952 in the West End production of Charles Morgan's "The River Line," directed by Michael MacOwan.

Tagg is survived by his longtime partner and a brother.

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