Terry Grimley receives a masterclass in the art of theatrical tailoring.
Something you can't help noticing about Birmingham Rep's current production of Uncle Vanya is that it looks fantastic.
The sense of period detail is meticulous, and when it comes to the men's suits, the theatre was able to call on the services of one of the best theatrical tailors in the business.
In fact, Michael Kennedy came out of retirement in his native Tipperary to help out a company he first worked for at Station Street in the 1960s, and which he still regards as a standard-setter.
"I'm known here as 'the maestro' for some unknown reason," he says. "I came over in October and did a three-day masterclass, and they asked me to work on Uncle Vanya.
"I did it because the people here are lovely, they are really nice people, and also because of the standard here. The general public don't realise the hidden standard that goes in – the detail and love and affection. It's unique to find people who care.
"Birmingham should be very proud. When you see a production like Uncle Vanya you're getting a picture of what life was then – a lovely picture of Russian life as it was.
"The people in Uncle Vanya would have had stuff made for them. I've shown them the old techniques. We've made a frock coat almost in the way it was made at the time. The difference is the cutting is better."
Kennedy's endorsement of the Rep's high standards is quite something when you begin to grasp the range and quality of the work he has done. The list of the actors he has dressed includes Peter O'Toole – who became a personal friend – Michael Redgrave, John Mills, Gerard Depardieu, Jeremy Irons, Leonardo di Caprio, James Coburn and Omar Sharif. He will always remember where he heard about the attack on the twin towers on 9/11, because he was giving Frank Langella a fitting at the Old Vic when the American actor took the call on his mobile.
At the peak of his career he estimates he was working on 20 or 30 productions a year. He has made costumes for Dr Who, for the National Theatre's original production of Amadeus, for Barbara Windsor in Calamity Jane and for Gotterdamerung in Bayreuth. He won an award in Hollywood for his work on The Man in the Iron Mask.
"For some reason I ended up an awful lot in Europe - Switzerland, Vienna. I had no problems with anybody. I don't think it matters as long as you can do what you're supposed to do well. I'm very hard on myself because you're only as good as your last job."
Kennedy's success came after the toughest start in life, as an inmate of one of Ireland's notorious so-called industrial schools. The abusive regime of these institutions run by the Catholic church has come to be acknowledged as a great national scandal in Ireland after years of denial.
"The Government has apologised for the brutality," says Kennedy, who compares the experience with Primo Levi's account of life in a Nazi concentration camp.
"We didn't have a Nazi number, but our day was like that. I was beaten black and blue. By the time I was 12 I could make a pair of boots. Then I got very ill and they
put me in the sewing shop. By the time I was 16 I was fully qualified."
This is why, ironically, the clergy later claimed the credit for his success. But he says: "You can't sit down and wallow in it. You can get angry at times about what happened to you as a child but somebody has got it worse. Somebody along the way didn't survive or became a junkie or an alcoholic. So what you do is say there but for the grace of God, and put it into the work you do."
After he moved to England in the 1960s his first contact with showbusiness was making costumes for pop groups. He was living in Bristol and a throwaway remark about the poor quality of costumes at the Bristol Old Vic led to him being drafted in to see if he could do better.
His first show was Hobson's Choice with Frank Middlemass, followed by Present Laughter with Paul Eddington.
He resisted overtures from the Royal Shakespeare Company, but later the RSC was added to his CV. He remembers Richard Nelson's play The General from America, staged at The Other Place in Stratford, as a particularly intense history lesson on the American War of Independence and its uniforms.
He first worked at Birmingham Rep in 1966, when Peter Dews was artistic director, dressing Timothy Dalton in As You Like It.
After the punishing experience of doing The Man in the Iron Mask he decided it was time to slow down, and he moved back to Ireland about ten years ago.
"I restored an old building to its beauty of 1802. It took seven years and people thought I was mad. It's so lovely over there. I don't see people for weeks at a time. I can drive 15 kilometres and maybe see two cars.
"I'm a bit of a lone person. I live there with my friend, and her name is solitude.
"In September I buy all my reading for the winter. I look at the TV and everything is in snow, so I go to Paris and buy DVDs of art.
"I spend hours and hours in art galleries when I go to places. The art gallery here is wonderful. I go and see maybe three paintings, and I don't look at anything else."
Still, even when he is in the depths of the Irish countryside he is not entirely cut off from the theatre.
"I help out the local amateur dramatic society. They're farmers, painters – I never bill them for anything. They don't know who I am, they don't realise..."
"The Japanese say it's not the receiving of something, it's the giving. So I give. It's not about me, it's about others. Unfortunately apprenticeships are gone here. They still have them in Germany.
"But there's something about working for Birmingham. There's a mutual respect here. The girls I've been lecturing – it's been a masterclass – they're very receptive. It's been a joy.
"I hope they are pleased with what I've done. I've tried my best and it's been a privilege working with them."
* Uncle Vanya is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until April 14 (Box office: 0121 236 4455).