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24 March 2014

Happy Birthday Houdini: A Celebration Of Stage Illusions

Today we’re celebrating the birthday of the illusionist Harry Houdini. Born in 1874, the master of magic changed the way we looked at stunts and undoubtedly influenced the directors of theatrical shows across the globe. The West End is a place where magic comes alive, and new technology has meant that the power of visual stage illusions is only ever increasing.

Here’s our pick of the top five shows which are guaranteed to inspire awe with their amazing special effects, illusion and magic:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Photo by Helen Maybanks
The scene in the book and film where Charlie and Willy Wonka travel through the levels of the chocolate factory in the Great Glass Elevator are simply unforgettable, but how on Earth would this translate to stage? Combine lots of hours of work and excellent engineering with a hint of Pure Imagination and this amazing illusion came to life right before our very eyes. The whizzpopping stunt didn’t go unnoticed — this chocolatey delight of a show walked away with the award for Best Set Designer (for Mark Thompson) at this year’s WhatsOnStage Awards.

Ghost the Musical

With gigantic LED screens, on-stage treadmills, and numerous ‘how did they do that?!’ moment that left even magician David Copperfield green with envy, Ghost the Musical quickly became well-known for its innovative use of technology. Ghost raised the bar for future West End productions and it was nominated for Best Set Design, Best Lighting Design, and Best Sound Design at the Olivier Awards in 2012.

War Horse

There’s only one thing harder than getting a horse on stage, and that’s making a cast of actors look like a horse on stage. The South African-founded Handspring Puppet Company took the reins on the production of War Horse in 2007 and what they came up with was unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Not only did they create the illusion that you’re watching a horse live on stage, even the smallest details such as the breathing of the animals are implemented with a brilliant artistic flare.

Woman in Black

With a cast of only two, this terrifying play has been haunting audiences for over 25 years. There’s a rocking chair which eerily moves on its own, a train’s carriage created from a series of shadows, and a whole host of spectacular lighting effects. Not for the faint-hearted, Woman in Black is full of subtle visual effects that are guaranteed to spook you.



Phantom of the Opera

The haunting moment when the Opera House’s mighty chandelier crashes to the ground is a scene from Phantom that has stunned audiences for years. The chandelier itself weighs around a ton and it falls at a speed of approximately two and a half metres per second, and this feat of engineering has not gone unnoticed — the West End production received four Olivier Award nominations in 1998 and the Broadway production went on to scoop the prizes for Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design at that year’s Tonys.


Visual effects on stage are nothing new, but an influx of new technology in recent years means that stage illusions are only going to get more impressive in the future — what wizardry do you want to see conjured up by Theatreland’s directors?

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Dan Wainman is not affiliated or associated with any broadcaster, programme maker, production team or television personality, unless stated or if advertising Free Audience Tickets on Lost In TV's behalf. All other materials are general press releases, news statements or public content, shared with any followers of this blog. Any personal opinions are those of the blog posts author.