Innovation in West End Set Design

By Alex Kingston

Monday 26th February 2024

When we go to the theatre, we often leave the venue with plenty of thoughts about the play’s script and the way that the production was directed. One very important aspect of the theatrical world that we often neglect to discuss however is the scenic design.

The set of a West End show has the power to create an immersive and visually stunning theatrical experience. It creates a wholly different universe, transporting the audience to a world previously unexplored.

An effective scenic design can either make or break a show without us even realising. It has the power to affect the extent to which we feel immersed in the character’s lives, thus impacting the connection we hold to the show as a whole.

The Intersection of Technology, Creativity, and Storytelling

Scenic design has come leaps and bounds in the last decade, and it continues to evolve as time goes on. There have been numerous revisions to the way in which a creative team approaches set, causing many breakthroughs in the field. Recent advancements in technology have completely revolutionized the craft, creating theatrical magic in the process.

One of the most significant changes to have occurred is the way that projections and videos are now being incorporated into the design. Creative teams have started to experiment with these new ideas, exploring how they can be used to take audiences to new and exciting locations. This has been used to great effect in many productions over the past several years, among them Back to the Future. Harnessing 3D animation, video designer Finn Ross creates the illusion of a high-speed DeLorean racing across the stage in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible fifty years prior.

Stranger Things: The First Shadow

On the subject of projections, one recent play which has carried out this feat particularly well is Stranger Things: The First Shadow. This sci-fi show crash-landed in London late last year, taking the West End by storm. It received universal praise for its ground-breaking designs, with set by Miriam Buether. Buether was assisted by 59 Productions, who crafted the video design and visual effects.

The designs configured by this creative team are among the most impressive currently seen on any West End stage. The video designs are paired with illusions and visual effects, pushing the boundaries of what was previously thought possible in live theatre. Successfully recreating the supernatural setting of the television show, this production quite literally transports its audience to a whole different dimension.

Through a combination of rotating set pieces, recreations of various locations, and mesmerising projections, Stranger Things: The First Shadow provides theatregoers with an incredible experience.

Tickets for Stranger Things: The First Shadow can be bought for £39 here:

Moulin Rouge

Moving onto musicals, among the most technically impressive set designs is Moulin Rouge. Moulin Rouge first opened in the West End in 2021, earning commendation for its lavish scenery, designed by Tony Award Winner Derek McLane.

From the moment you step inside the Piccadilly Theatre, the Moulin Rouge comes alive. With a towering windmill situated to the left of the stage, and a colossal elephant statue situated on the right, it’s truly awe-inspiring. The theatre is doused in ruby red from head to toe, meaning that the experience begins as soon as you walk in.

The set rotates between different locations with ease; at one moment we see the rooftops of France, and the next we see the ancient workspace of a Parisian artist. Having one of these locations on display would be jaw-dropping, but the fact that there are so many intrinsically detailed settings adds to the production in a significant way.

Tickets for Moulin Rouge can be bought for £30 here:


Speaking of experiences that begin the moment you enter the theatre, Cabaret is yet another show that fulfils this criterion. This revival of the classic Kander and Ebb musical debuted in November 2021, starring Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley. It has continued to delight audiences ever since and has been so successful that it is now transferring to Broadway.

This production features a set design like no other, with Tom Scutt at the helm. In preparation for this show, the Playhouse Theatre was completely reconfigured. What was once a traditional West End venue has magically transformed into the ‘Kit Kat Club’. The venue now consists of an intimate in-the-round setting, featuring tables and chairs opposite the stage where audience members can dine. Impressively, it’s not just the auditorium that’s been altered. Instead, Scutt has redesigned the entire building, opening backstage areas and turning them into pre-show performance spots.

The fact that the set design for Cabaret encompasses the entire site is revolutionary. From the second you step inside the theatre, you feel as if you have travelled back in time. One second, you’re walking through the streets of London’s West End, and the next you’re in 1930s Berlin!

Tickets for Cabaret can be bought for £60 here:

Emerging Trends and Future Directions

Following on from the success of Cabaret, it does seem that there is an emerging trend toward immersive sets. The way in which Cabaret’s design immerses you into the world of the show from the get-go is something which several productions have since tried to emulate.

A recent design which has gone above and beyond in immersing its audience can be found in Guys and Dolls at the Bridge Theatre. This set design, by Bunny Christie, is something which must be believed to be seen. In this highly innovative production, theatregoers are plunged into the streets of Manhattan. Taking immersive design to the next level, audience members find themselves directly in the middle of the set. With designs all around you, it feels as if you are stood directly on a bustling Broadway street.

With Cabaret and Guys and Dolls having been so successful, we can expect to see more immersive designs in the near future.

Final Thoughts

Scenic design is an integral part of the West End, and it’s a field that is currently thriving. While previously associated with a fanciful backdrop, it has since become so much more. A production’s set design can now include video projections, restructuring the whole theatre, plus so much more. Innovators like Miriam Buether, Derek McLane, and Tom Scutt continue to push the boundaries of what is possible, mesmerising audiences in the process.

One of the most exciting things about the future of set design is that we can expect the unexpected. Audiences from fifty years ago would be stunned if they could see how sets have developed over that time. So much progress has been made in ways that few people could have anticipated. Only time will tell what innovative surprises lie ahead!