Fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber often have difficulty defending Starlight Express, his roller-skating juggernaut which ran for 18 years. But, for many people in their 20s and 30s, Starlight was an entry visa to live theatre, coaxed by the spectacle and pop music which was then so rare in popular theatre (but which is now hard to avoid).

Although vastly down-sized from those maximilist days, this new touring production gives a sense of why it was such a landmark and why Trevor Nunn’s original thought of putting it on skates remains one of the great eurekas.

The limitations of the original show remain. The plot (boy train meets girl train, traditional diesel beats flashy electricity) runs in a strange space-time continuum, getting slower as the skating gets faster. The sound still insists on making it as hard as possible to hear Richard Stilgoe’s under-rated lyrics. The music is a festival of drum machines, synth-harmonicas and echoed vocals and the lighting is part pop concert, part Vari-Lite expo. But even if director/choreographer Arlene Phillips’ claim that it’s been “completely updated” overstates it, the wow of seeing 25 dancers whizzing around on skates is hard to deny.

Legendary designer John Napier’s vast vision of nearly 30 years ago is handed over to lighting designer Nick Richings, who provides the visual extravagance and technical sophistication which was always the show’s primary appeal. Lloyd Webber’s score has plenty of the pop and rock pastiches that he had such a propensity for at that stage in his career, and “Electra” and the title song still give goosebumps.

An embarrassing We Will Rock You clap-clap-palms moment is the one total mis-fire, and post Ghost the video contributions look a bit ZX Spectrum. But an appealing new number has been added, composed by Alastair Lloyd Webber (the son to whom Andrew dedicated the revised version of 1992) although it replaces what was previously the best song in the show, “Next Time You Fall in Love”.

The present cast, many of whom have played the show all over the world, do terrifically well to get their performances seen above all the noise and flash, and are lead appealingly by Kristofer Harding and Amanda Coutts as Rusty and Pearl. Lothair Eaton as Poppa may not be able to dislodge the brilliance of Lon Satton from ones mind but runs him close. The star turn comes from Mykal Rand (Electra) who has the charisma to match his dancing and singing.

The show ends to a megamix (an idea it nicked from Joseph 20 years ago but which is now common currency), reminding us that the days of a show finishing and the cast bowing and leaving are long gone. But Starlight always was a dazzler, making up in lights and sound what it lacks in subtlety and storytelling. There’s no sign of this particular train being decommissioned for a while yet.

- Benet Catty

Tonight (15 May 2012) we're running a Whatsonstage.com Outing to Starlight Express, including a meet-and-greet with the cast. For more info on this and other Outings, click here.