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A World Of Pure Imagination - The Magic Of The West End Stage

For me one of the greatest thrills of the theatre is how an audience can be whisked away to any number of enchanting destinations.

Theatre sets bring creative visions to life, and I’m often left in awe of the way an audience will suspend their disbelief and be transported, sometimes with a mere shuffling of a few props, to a myriad of places; far off Oz, revolutionary France, a futuristic dystopia, the war ravaged fields of WWII era Europe, dusty African plains or even a lowly hoover repair shop in Ireland.

No matter how simplistic or elaborate, sets play a key role in encapsulating a viewer’s theatre experience and absorbing them into the microcosm of the show. However some shows like to really raise the stakes and add the wow factor. So here are 5 of my favourite scene stealing, inanimate ‘stars’ of the West End. Oh and #spoilers!!

1. The Steam Train In The Railway Children, Kings Cross Theatre
With a purpose built set, on an actual train line, The Railway Children is a must see. From the moment you walk through the gates, with the ushers in classic railway attire and a penny sweet tuck shop in the lobby, you really get a feel for the era. The touching story is beautifully acted but the undoubted star of the show is the stunning 60 tonne vintage locomotive that dramatically steams into the middle of the set. Truly a theatre moment not to be missed.

2. The Chandelier In Phantom of the Opera, Her Majesty’s Theatre
Phantom is comprised of atmospheric lighting, hauntingly beautiful melodies, captivating vocal performances, dry ice, fog and smoke machines. For me that sells it. However it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that this show would not be the same without the astonishing moment the chandelier drops in nightly to the delight and amazement of theatre audiences. The replica of the Paris opera house chandelier measures 3 metres wide and weighs one tonne, so not only is it an impressive visual, it’s also a remarkable feat of engineering.

3. The Helicopter In Miss Saigon, Prince Edward Theatre
Essentially a tragic love story, this revival brings to life the hustle and bustle of Saigon’s seedy club scene, as our heroine meets and falls for her American lover only to have him torn away. With its skilled use of stage lighting and a wall of sound directed at the audience, even a partially real Helicopter snatching GI Chris away from his love Kim leaves her and the audience devastated. The cunning use of space means the stage, like Kim, really does feel empty once it’s gone.

4. The Rocking Chair In Woman in Black, Fortune Theatre
With a minimalistic set and cast this spine tingling tale has been terrifying audiences for 25 years. The use of dry ice, fog machines and a vicious apparition keeps theatre goers on a knife’s edge throughout the play. Yet it’s the simple but chillingly effective visual, of a standard wooden rocking chair, unexplainably in motion, in an abandoned nursery behind a locked door that stays with you long after your visit. 

5. Priscilla The Bus, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Palace Theatre
Although it closed several years ago I couldn’t leave this out of my list. From start to finish Priscilla was a spectacle of sequins and disco balls. Camp and crude at times at heart this is a touching tale of fatherhood, friendship and drag queens. Loathe as I am to say it, having grown up with Jason Donovan posters on the bedroom wall, the true star of this show was indeed Priscilla herself. A bus, covered in thousands led lights, weighing so much the stage had to be reinforced to accommodate it; Priscilla stole the show night after night. Seeing Oliver Thornton’s Felicia on top of the bus, astride a sparkling high heeled shoe is a theatre moment I’ll never forget. 

Sheila White

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