Peter Docherty obituary

Other lives: Designer for the stage with a particular affinity for ballet

My friend Peter Docherty, who has died of cancer aged 75, had a distinguished career as a designer for the stage – especially ballet. Peter and the choreographer Ronald Hynd made a formidable team and together they created memorable productions for London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet, ENB), including The Nutcracker (1976), which annually at Christmas somehow fitted on to the cramped stage at the Royal Festival Hall.

Peter designed the sets for Ned Sherrin’s 1976 hit musical revue Side By Side By Sondheim, in the West End and on Broadway, and for a revival of The Sound of Music in 1982 in the West End starring Petula Clark. For the Royal Court he designed David Storey’s In Celebration in 1969. His most acclaimed work in opera was the English National Opera’s 1988 production of Janáček’s The Adventures of Mr Broucek.

Peter was born in Blackpool, the son of Norbert and Dorris Docherty, and travelled to London in his teens in search of work. He went round the stage doors looking for a job and thus managed to finance art studies at Regent Street Polytechnic and later the Slade. He worked backstage at the Aldwych theatre and then at the Royal Opera House, and served as a dresser to Rudolf Nureyev and other stars of the era.

At the Opera House he met Hynd, who asked Peter to design for his new production of Dvořák’s Variations for ENB. In 1993 he and Hynd created a wonderful new Sleeping Beauty for ENB which became a fine ambassador for the company for many years. In 2018 he returned to the ballet for a splendid new production by Derek Deane in Shanghai.

Peter’s eye for detail and for knowing exactly what would look right on stage under light was matchless. His skill at creating sets that complemented and showed off the dancers – and left them space to move with grace – was exemplary.

He maintained close connections with emerging choreographers and cherished the ballets he designed for Michael Corder, Matthew Hart and Thomas Edur.

The front cloth design Peter Docherty created for a production of John Ringling’s Circus Nutcracker for Sarasota Ballet, 2017
The frontcloth design Peter Docherty created for a production of John Ringling’s Circus Nutcracker for Sarasota Ballet, 2017 Photograph: handout

Peter was a guest lecturer at the Wimbledon School of Art before being appointed a senior lecturer in theatre design at Central Saint Martins and in 1997, professor at the University of the Arts London.

In 1986 he joined John Schlesinger and Sherrin as a founding organiser for the Action Against Aids gala at the Adelphi theatre. Peter served as a committee member of the actors’ union Equity (1978-84) and with Tim White he edited the book Design for Performance: From Diaghilev to the Pet Shop Boys (1996).

Peter faced his illness with courage and grace. The last time I saw him, in Charing Cross hospital, we talked about his plans for the future. His face suddenly brightened and the Docherty smile beamed. “And,” he enthused, “I have been asked to design and direct Candide in Estonia later this year.”

Alasdair Steven

The GuardianTramp

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