NOTE: The following review dates from November 2004 and an earlier tour stop for this production.
Many touring productions often feel slightly low rent in comparison with their West End predecessors. When I first heard that Andrew Lloyd Webber's roller skating trains of Starlight Express were doing the tour circuit, minus the tracks I was expecting a cheapened regional production. But from the overture onwards, it's obvious that Clear Channel and Really Useful have pulled out all the stops.
Replacing the excitement of tracks all around the theatre with a 3D film and a catwalk style stage works wonderfully well. Audience members in the stalls can feel part of the action and wherever you are sat the 3D effects will have you ducking and diving during the races. Technical difficulties stopped the show in its tracks for a short while but did not dampen the spirits of the audience on the night I went. They cheered and clapped throughout the show.
The simplicity of the story featuring Rusty the steam train James Gillan and his attempts to shake his underdog image, win the race and the love of his sweetheart, Pearl may irritate some. Also the locomotive lyrics are never going to be award winners, it's true. But Starlight is so entertaining, involving and unique that only the harshest of cynics could pick holes.
Gillan shows real versatility as the down trodden steam engine as previous to this he was Marilyn in Taboo. His vocals contain real genuine emotion. Anton Stephens is also outstanding as Poppa, his ageing mentor.
Many of the songs are given a new lease of life due to the energetic performances. "U.C.O.U.P.L.E.D" is delivered with humour and warmth by Tanya Robb's Dinah and Electra's "AC/DC" sounds brand new due to Mykal Rand's showy turn. Only an ill advised rap number feels out of place, the rest of the songs sound fresh and reinvigorated. At times Richard Stilgoe's lyrics seem a bit twee but they suit the narrative perfectly, so who's complaining.
The all singing, all dancing, all skating cast are remarkable. They make full use of John Napier's expansive set and rarely put a skate wrong, each of them rising to the high standard of Arlene Phillip's stunning choreography.
Overall this high spirited production is slick, polished and ready to pull into to a theatre near you. You'll be steaming if you miss it.
By - Glenn Meads