Recent review

“Starlight Express” at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre

Mark Shenton in north London
2 July 2024

The third-longest running Andrew Lloyd Webber musical to be launched across the 1980s – his most successful and prolific decade – Starlight Express achieved an original run of over 18 years at a radically transformed Apollo Victoria, now home of course to another musical behemoth Wicked.

 

Jade Marvin and ensemble.
Photo credit: Pamela Raith.

 

But no West End musical before – or since – has ever brought the audience along for the ride, in every sense, for a genuinely immersive experience that had the roller-skating cast hurtling down race tracks that were wrapped around the entire stalls, went up to the dress circle, and back again to the stalls via a massive steel-girder bridge that was engineered into place as required.

Those agile and fearless actors each represented a train or carriage that was competing in a series of races being played out in the imagination of a child. Originally just a voice-over, the child is now embodied by a slightly shrill, over-emphatic youngster, who quite quickly tried my patience as he (or, at some performances, she) bosses the competitors around, and provides some basic narration (such as about the perennially delayed British entry; jokes about our forever-flailing railway system never get old, it seems, or outdated, either, more’s the pity).

That’s not the only thing that’s changed since the original, which was initially a battle of old railway power technology – steam trains – over those powered by diesel or electricity. Now a hydrogen-propelled train has been added to the mix; also the gender mix has been changed, with binary assignations of engines versus coaches and trucks no longer strictly divided on male/female lines.

All of this helps propel the show into the 21st century. But its main raison d’être, in 1984 as now, exactly 40 years later, is the sheer size and scale of the spectacle, and here the producers – led by Michael Harrison and his joint partnership with the composer as Lloyd Webber Harrison Musicals – are blessed as much by the casting of their theatre as their actors. At the aircraft hanger-like Troubadour Wembley Park, a vast audience can be accommodated on the same level, so the races are visible to everyone all the time, though additional close-up detail is still provided, as it was for the original production, on giant video screens dotted around the auditorium.

One of the most influential figures in British musicals over the last half century is designer John Napier, who was responsible for the original Cats (also partly immersive in its original transformation of the New London Theatre into a playground for cats to frolic and be re-born in), Starlight Express, Les Misérables, and Miss Saigon; his work is referenced and expanded by this production’s new designer Tim Hatley, who posts tribute to Napier’s original work in the programme: “Starlight was the moment that theatre stopped being behind the proscenium and came forward into the auditorium.”

Now the theatre and set are as one, part of the same fluid immersion into the show’s unique and spectacular world, superbly augmented by Gabriella Slade’s funky costumes, Howard Hudson’s ravishing laser-augmented lighting, Gareth Owen’s crisp and crucial sound design, and Andrzej Goulding’s eye-popping video design and animations.

The ultimate effect may still be more spectacle than substance but, like a video game come to 3D life, it’s nevertheless very, very impressive.

Endlessly rewritten and restaged over the years – including a total relaunch in 1992 when 12 songs were removed and five added – the score gets yet another overhaul for this production; I’m always surprised that Lloyd Webber is so happy to change one of his most successful shows! But maybe, as one of his most pop-oriented scores, he’s content to allow it to move with the times. The songs themselves are more easily interchangeable, with none of his out-and-out classics amongst them but which are outfitted with Richard Stilgoe’s playful lyrics to provide plenty of spirited fun.

And that’s the signature of director Luke Sheppard’s inevitably fast but also bold and fearless production. It is galvanized by a youthful cast – many making their theatrical debuts, including principals Jeevan Braich (Rusty), Tom Pigram (Electra), Kayna Montecillo (Pearl), Eve Humphrey (Dinah), and Al Knott (Greaseball) – who execute choreographer Ashley Nottingham’s dancing on roller skates (and scooters) with élan and electrifying dazzle.

This is a notable rebirth for one of the last century’s strangest but most sensational musical hits.