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A Neon Fever Dream That Will Leave You Stunned

A Neon Fever Dream That Will Leave You Stunned

Who knew blunt force trauma could be so enjoyable? “Starlight Express” is back, and it’s a two-and-a-half-hour neon fever dream. Imagine people on roller skates in iridescent costumes pretending to be trains, set in space or possibly the future. It’s an extraordinary creative spectacle, where songs about steam engines are cranked out at max volume, all designed to delight your inner child. And it truly does.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first (and arguably better) attempt at the Cinderella story took theatre to new levels of excess when it opened 40 years ago in London. Most people remember it now for the cast on roller skates speeding around a specially reconfigured theatre at up to 30mph. During its Nineties heyday, it earned the title of the West End’s most injury-prone show.

This revival in the reworked Troubadour space, directed by Luke Sheppard, is a tamer affair, but there’s still a sense of jeopardy as performers clad in huge otherworldly costumes rocket past. Ushers even warn the audience to keep fingers clear and to leave seats only in an emergency.

Though it starts gently enough with a little boy or girl (it varies each night) named Control playing with their trains and being sung to sleep by mom, it quickly amps up to maximum. Soon, the imagination of Control is filled with dozens of train-people who spend most of the first act introducing themselves. There’s a dining car called Dinah and an electric engine called Electra, among others. Control wants them to race, and we’re rooting for Rusty, an old steam engine played by newcomer Jeevan Braich. It’s not the kind of show that allows for finely detailed performances, but Braich and the other 39 (!) cast members sing and skate very well.

Every time “Starlight Express” arrives at a new theatre, it undergoes substantial revisions – it’s the Train of Theseus, with barely anything remaining of the original. In this version, Control is actually played by a child, rather than a disembodied voice as in previous productions. Gone are the trains with stereotypical names corresponding to their countries (like Espresso for Italy and Manga for Japan). Many genders have been swapped. Notably, it seems odd in 2024 to be celebrating steam trains and vilifying the electric villain. Enter a new character – the Hydrogen train – to be our hero’s helper.

Everything about the show is maximalist. Tim Hatley’s set design includes ramps, revolving stages, and sliding doors. Costumes by Gabriella Slade turn humans into Transformer/Power Ranger/living cartoon hybrids. They add to the sense of queerness that has always been a massive part of the show, emphasized even more in this production with the inclusion of gay and non-binary trains.

Andrzej Goulding’s stunning video design throws galaxies around the massive, hangar-like space, making it feel like the inside of a feverish child’s mind. The circular lighting rig is arena-scale, complete with lasers. While visually striking, the music and lyrics haven’t aged as well. This isn’t even close to Lloyd Webber’s best score, and the lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, with contributions from Nick Coler and Lauren Aquilina, often feel simplistic. They teeter between being understandable by children and being childishly simple: “I am me and that’s all I need. Won’t get down, it’s my crown.”

Does it matter? Not really. The show takes place within the imagination of a small child, which is a useful excuse for its shortcomings. It’s the kind of performance you watch with your mouth wide open. It’s full-on, it’s fun, and it’s designed for kids. And yes, they’re on roller skates!

Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, booking until February 2025

Source: Particle News