Sunday 30 June 2024

Starlight Express - Review

Troubadour Theatre, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Richard Stilgoe
Directed by Luke Sheppard

Jeevan Braich (Rusty) and the cast of Starlight Express

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express arrives at Wembley Park’s Troubadour Theatre transformed from its 1980s opening into a show for the 21st century. Much of the composer’s magic remains, with that modulation half-way through the title song being up there among the best of Lloyd-Webber’s melodies. Families taking their kids to see this enchanting tale of a set of toy trains that come to life in a child’s imagination will not be disappointed.

The story’s narrative is that classic tale of growth and self-discovery, of strength and self-belief over adversity as Rusty (played by Jeevan Braich), the battered old toy steam engine seeks to prove himself against the newer rival locomotives, Greaseball (Al Knott) the diesel and Electra (Tom Pigram) the electric train.

The show offers a robust musical theatre experience. With the lead characters and ensemble all on roller-skates, the speed and visuals of the performances are literally breathtaking with the show's creative credits proving impressive. Tim Hatley’s designs make use of most of the Troubadour’s cavernous interior alongside Howard Hudson's sensational lighting and laser work (the technology allowing the remote follow spots to track the skaters is astounding). Andrzej Goulding’s video designs, Gabriella Slade’s costumes and Jackie Saundercock’s make-up work are equally stunning, even if their creations resemble Marvel Comics' Transformers rather than trains!

If one has younger family members or friends who will enjoy the show, or is even just a devotee of the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber or musical theatre then a trip to Wembley is well worth the effort and expense.

However…for those that saw the show some 40-odd years ago it is worth pondering: If the machine wasn't broken, then why did Lloyd Webber and his equally gifted lead producer Michael Harrison seek to meddle with it? Too many songs from the brilliant original have been chopped, including A Lotta Locomotion, Only He and Only You. Hatley’s skating tracks, while unquestionably exciting at the Troubadour do not match the thrill one felt in the Apollo Victoria, where the skaters soared from the stage up and out to the very rim of the theatre's dress circle before returning to traverse John Napier's mesmerising bridge that flew and spun above the stage.

The show’s re-imagined casting is also flawed. While it is a fine idea to now have a real child as Control (on the night of this review the delightful Shaniyah Abrahams was in charge of the trainset), the writers have transitioned Poppa into Momma. Jade Marvin in this role has a beautiful voice and presence, but she lacks the baritone heft that back in the day would have inspired the creation of Poppa's vocals. This is much missed, most notably in two of her critical numbers, Momma’s Blues and the Starlight Sequence.

And whoever thought of casting Greaseball as a female character needs to take a short walk from the theatre and spend some time (safely) by the West Coast Main Line. Here, diesel freight trains frequently rumble by with a booming bass pulse that could register on the Richter Scale! Having driven a diesel train I can vouch that they throb with a guttural, metaphorical testosterone. For all Al Knott’s fiercely fit and fabulously menacing skating, she may well make an outstanding pantomime villain, but a diesel engine she ain’t!

Of the show’s principal characters, too many of them are professional debutantes. Skating of course requires the enviable fitness and stamina of their youth, however the very best musical theatre also demands the skill of being able to act through song, a craft typically honed by an actor’s years of experience. With many of director Luke Sheppard’s leads fresh out of drama school, their roller-skating may well be energetically en-pointe but they do not always deliver emotionally convincing characters. Richard Stilgoe’s U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D. sung by Dinah the Dining Car (Eve Humphrey) and a pastiched tribute to country-music legend Tammy Wynette, should be one of the wittiest songs in the canon. Here, it fails to land.

A shout-out however for Skate Marshals Charlie Russell, Jamie Addison and Dante Hutchison whose scooter skills (including scooted 360-degree somersaults) are out of this world.

Technically state-of the-art, Starlight Express looks and sounds like the multi-million pound extravaganza that the producers and creatives have fashioned. The kids will love it!

Booking until 16th February 2025
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

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