Let's talk about sets: Simon Higlett on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Designer Simon Higlett reveals how he went about designing the new touring version of the classic musical

My starting point for designing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was trying to discover from the text a fresh way of looking at the real story of Caractacus Potts – a man, a widower, an inventor (albeit not a very good one) trying to bring up two children, and inventing an imaginary world to cope with his lot.

The family lives in a windmill, so I decided that would be the one location of their world. But there's also an imaginary one, Vulgaria, which is peopled by the inhabitants of the children's everyday lives back in England. Windmills display their workings inside so I used this thoughout as the way to solve the problems of the piece: the audience are invited to use their imagination, and see "the works".

The film is most people's point of reference and there are some iconic images I haven't messed with – the car, and the essence of the Childcatcher, probably the most memorable, so my designs follow suit here. The whole notion of flying the car came to me very quickly. I knew I didn't want Chitty to fly against a black star cloth, and the idea of a moving projected image behind the car so the audience see and feel the effect of flying, like in those ‘rollercoaster films’, seemed a fun way to do this. The interior shape of a windmill creates a perfect backdrop for the projections. The flying mechanism for the car I left to the engineers!

The idea of the inventor using the walls of the mill as a palette for his imagination suits the world of projection well. Simon Wainwright has provided some beautiful witty moving images for the transitions between scenes to move the story on. Tim Mitchell’s lighting design complements the ten projectors with great skill and some excellent scene painting!

We have set the production in the period after WWI – Truly Scrumptious in our version is a keen motorcyclist, and a thoroughly modern woman.

Elsewhere I've tried to re-invent and make some wittier comments about post WWI society, and have some fun with the costumes. The fantastic wardrobe department at the West Yorkshire Playhouse have made some wonderful creations.

The show is required to tour around the UK and Ireland for over a year, following the West Yorkshire Playhouse run. This has been the most difficult aspect of designing the show – we have a three-day turnaround and trying to keep things simple enough and answering the demands of the show is challenging. A single location helps along with simple flying pieces, but there are three cars and numerous large props to accommodate!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang runs at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 30 January and then tours the UK throughout 2016.