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Starlight Express Review: Lloyd Webber’s Juggernaut is Bigger and Camper Than Ever
Keep on truckin’ … Jade Marvin as Momma in Starlight Express. Photograph: Pamela Raith

What could have driven Andrew Lloyd Webber to devise a musical about the lives and loves of train carriages, all while roller-skating through a nocturnal track-race, remains a tantalizing question. Is Starlight Express the most unique musical to ever grace the stage? It certainly seems so as it makes a grand return, almost four decades after its debut with a revival that’s bigger, camper, and even more outrageously over-the-top than its original 1984 version.

While the musical once divided audiences, becoming cult viewing for some and rusty machinery for others, this new production will likely do the same. It’s several degrees weirder than Cats and designed for the massive Troubadour auditorium. The show explodes like a volcano of light, sound, projections, and dry ice under Luke Sheppard’s direction.

The immersive experience starts even before the show, with a foyer full of glitter balls. A word of caution for those prone to motion sickness: one of my young companions had to leave after Act One.

The production features big stadium optics, with lighting by Howard Hudson and video by Andrzej Goulding. The bass thumps thanks to sound designer Gareth Owen, while a hurricane of speed and motion is crafted by choreographer Ashley Nottingham, with creative dramaturgy by Arlene Phillips, a collaborator on the original production. The cast wears bold, outlandish costumes by Gabriella Slade, complete with retro-futuristic David Bowie lightning strikes painted across their faces.

Scooters flip and the roller-skating cast sings and slaloms through a stage designed by Tim Hatley and onto a circuit that weaves around the auditorium itself. An opening scene shows a boy being tucked into bed, leading us into his vivid dream world and the psychedelic train race. The narrative doesn’t always stick together well, as the show throws too much into the mix at times. The ever-present background music often makes it feel like a frenetic Friday night game show. The boy never wakes from his Dorothy-like fever dream, leaving a slightly unsettling impression that he’s permanently stuck in this train-bound Oz.

This revival introduces new characters representing various types of trains and their parts, from electric and hydrogen to diesel and good old-fashioned steam. These eight new characters are elaborately created but mainly parade rather than tell a coherent story. One standout is Hydra (Jaydon Vijn), who brings a new number, “Hydrogen,” a clever duet with Rusty. Some characters, like the silver-winged, campy, android-esque Electra (Tom Pigram), look as if they’ve been beamed straight from the Starship Enterprise.

Slowly, and perhaps too slowly, a love story between Pearl (Kayna Montecillo) and Rusty (Jeevan Braich) emerges, resembling a locomotive meet-cute. Braich possesses an extraordinary voice, and there is undeniable tender chemistry between Rusty and Pearl, but their story unfortunately feels sidelined.

The repeated races add physical speed but paradoxically slow down the overall pace, and the story lacks depth. However, the production is not without charm and wit, including humorous digs at the railway network with announcements of “leaves on the track.” Richard Stilgoe’s lyrics are ridiculous yet enjoyable, with trains singing lines like “freight is great” and “I’m the hero of net zero,” reflecting an updated awareness of contemporary issues. The songs traverse various genres—from glam-rock to blues, hip-hop, country, and musical ballads—and are masterfully sung alongside the cast’s athletic feats.

A duet between Pearl and Rusty, “Whistle At Me,” captures the sweet rush of a high-school crush, while “AC/DC” delivers all the adrenaline of the race. Another standout is “Momma’s Blues,” brilliantly sung by Momma (Jade Marvin).

At the end of the opening night, I asked my remaining young companion whether the show was sublime or ridiculous. She responded, “Both,” a verdict with which I fully agree.

Starlight Express is running at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre in London until February 16.

Source: The Guardian, Particlenews