Reviews

Starlight Express review – not first class, but a technical rollercoaster ride

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe’s musical rolls its way back into London

Jade Marvin and the cast of Starlight Express, © Pamela Raith
Jade Marvin and the cast of Starlight Express, © Pamela Raith

In the run up to the opening of this production, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber gave a deeply touching interview to the Telegraph in which he recalled his son Nicholas’s face when he first saw a steam train. Since Nicholas died last year at the age of 43, he dedicated the revival of Starlight Express, a musical which celebrates the triumph of a steam train, to him.

If only the production had been one sixteenth as sensitive as the interview. Starlight Express was always an oddity even when it opened in 1984 – a musical about trains with the slimmest of plots and the cast on roller skates. The fact that it was directed by RSC alumnus Trevor Nunn just added to its curiosity value.

But people loved it and it lasted, running for 7,409 performances. In Germany it has been playing in a specially built theatre since 1988. Over the years, Lloyd Webber and lyricist Richard Stilgoe have tweaked it to bring it up to date (losing the smoking car, for example). This new version adds a song in praise of hydrogen power – represented by a truck called Hydra, played by Jaydon Vijn and quite the best thing in the show, with a mega-watt smile and a dazzling pirouette.

In other respects, however, it feels like a miscalculation. In going bigger, louder and brasher, it has lost much of its charm. In making the skating a procession along safety-railed tracks, it has sacrificed its sense of danger and complicity. Everything feels as if it is straining too hard to pull out of the station and enter the stratosphere.

Al Knott, © Pamela Raith
Al Knott, © Pamela Raith

That doesn’t mean you can’t see all the love and care lavished upon it. It is a technical triumph. Tim Hatley’s set of ramps is massively illuminated by Howard Hudson’s lights that shoot in all directions, in cones and lasers, blues, yellows and smoky whites. Andrezej Goulding’s videos add further visual flourishes and record the races for all to see. There are clever touches such as the way that Control’s planet mobile becomes a huge planetarium, with gleaming orbs dropping down from a circular rim around the arena.

Control himself is now present onstage, played with vim on the performance I saw by Cristian Buttaci. Poppa has become Momma (a rich-voiced Jade Marvin) who puts him to bed, before she reappears as steam engine Rusty’s mother in the races that are explicitly part of a little boy’s dream.

 

The cast work ridiculously hard on their skates to bring the contests to life, and the songs are expertly and enthusiastically delivered, but like everything under Luke Sheppard’s direction, the effect is broad brush rather than specific. The story is not this show’s selling point, but when everything is so insistent, it’s hard to work out what is going on; wit and lightness of touch are in short supply.

The costumes are a case in point. The cast never really looked like trains, but they didn’t look like Power Rangers as they do here, as if they have wandered in from a generic superhero universe. The choreography too, though under the notional supervision of Arlene Phillips, credited as creative dramaturg, is generalised and energetic rather than detailed; only the pumping arms as they whizz around the arena give a sense of locomotion. Quite what the Starlight Express represents is equally hard to discern, though the starry effects are beautiful.

The new orchestrations by Matthew Brind are flattened by the ear-splitting volume the entire score is delivered at. It seems astonishing to think Lloyd Webber wrote Cats immediately before this and Phantom two years later. Both contain songs infinitely more memorable, though the theme song is haunting and the Tammy Wynette parody Uncoupled is great fun. It’s beautifully delivered by Eve Humphrey, in a rare moment where humanity is allowed to shine through a production that too often treats its cast members like cogs in a wheel.

I saw a late performance of the original and remember liking it, responding to its simplicity and eccentricity. This revival takes its merits and moves the points in the wrong direction. A lot of the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves, but unlike Rusty, I ran out of steam.

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