Andrew Lloyd Webber’s loco-musical juggernaut Starlight Express has had a facelift and rolled into Bournemouth this week for a three week summer stopover, much to the delight of local theatre-goers and holiday-makers (who would frankly love anything that gets them in out of our glorious summer rain).
Playing at the cavernous Bournemouth International Centre, not ideally suited to theatrical productions, Bill Kenwright’s re-imagining of the ground breaking 1980s spectacular complete with 3D imagery and rock concert lighting does a grand job of filling the space and wowing the audience.
As Mr Kenwright is now cornering the market in reviving and touring Lloyd Webber’s back catalogue, and it is rumoured that both Woman in White and Love Never Dies may be doing the rounds in the next couple of years, I am the last person who would in any way discourage their endeavours. Craig Revel-Horwood’s revival of Sunset Boulevard (also by ALW) a few years back is the perfect example of how a mega-musical can be successfully cut to the bone to make touring affordable without losing the essence of the piece. Unfortunately with Starlight, a musical that has already been heavily revised over its 28 year history, this incarnation, in its quest to update the work for the 21st century, appears to me, to have thrown the baby out with the bath water. A lot of the breath-catching ‘magic’ that set it apart from contemporaneous shows in the early 1980s, has been lost behind the flashing lights and cheap 3D tricks.
I am all for the use of technology to enhance and supplement performance where it can add something that would not be physically or economically possible to engineer in any other way, but to use it in place of creativity is almost unforgiveable in live theatre. The race sequences, so central to the plot, are the defining moments of this show, and a unique opportunity to show how imagination, choreography and the abilities of the human body can force a picture into the minds of its audience. Sure, no touring production could possibly re-create the vast skating platforms and enormous sets of the Apollo Victoria (Starlight’s original home in 1984), but to rely on pre-recorded 3D film sequences, containing computer generated imagery and special effects, leaves me at least, feeling pretty short-changed.
Some of the tracks too, have been updated for this new version, and a couple of new songs added, to varying degrees of success. The modern beat of these revised songs largely sit uncomfortably with those original numbers left intact. Some of the songs most fondly remembered from the original production and, in my opinion, vastly superior to the updated ones, are made to look a bit dated, which is a real shame. The one exception is the new second act ballad, “I Do”, written by Alistair Lloyd Webber and Nick Coler, which is a fine duet, and kind of works here. Much better for it to be featured in its own musical production though, and to resurrect the long time deleted “Only He” whose refrain is still tantalisingly used throughout the underlying score, but removed by Lloyd Webber himself in a previous revival.
Having got all the grumbles out of the way and acknowledging that it is grossly unfair to compare this production to the original, let’s take a look at the new Starlight Express through the eyes of an audience not old enough to have seen the original, and who will be bowled over by the video games style imagery and rock concert beat.
The direction and choreography (by Arlene Phillips) is tight and imaginative, and the ensemble routines, especially in the triumphant “Light At The End of the Tunnel” / Finale sequence, are superb, and hint at how much more magical it could have been if the cast had been allowed free reign throughout. Kristopher Harding makes a marvellous Rusty, and paired with Amanda Coutts’ Pearl make an effective team. Lothair Eaton (Poppa), Ruthie Stephens (Dinah) and Stuart Armfield (Caboose) stand-out, and Kris Manuel (a superbly AC/DC Electra) and Jamie Capewell (Greaseball) are imposing and accomplished, making the most of their leading ‘bad boy’ roles. Indeed the entire, hugely energetic, cast are first rate and the skating routines are stunning.
The small orchestra, under the direction of Dave Rose, manage to create the ‘full bodied’ sound that the score deserves, and the dazzling lighting effects, designed by Nick Richings, quite literally add sparkle.
An exhausting roller coaster of a ride, and huge fun, this new production is undeniably delighting new audiences around the country. That I think it is not a patch on the original hardly matters, and should certainly not take anything away from this superb, hardworking, talented company.