Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Richard Stilgoe
Director: Arlene Philips
Reviewer: John Roberts
Ironic that the start of the latest touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express should encounter a 15 minute delay in departure – however, it is not the only departure that is notable from this Bill Kenwright-produced tour.
Songs have been notably cut (Next Time You Fall In Love) and replaced (I Do, written by Alastair Lloyd Webber &Nick Coler), the set sensationally stripped away, yet still credited to the great John Napier, and a new techno/dance beat-infused orchestration awaits passengers on board. Some of these changes are arguably an improvement while others make the production feel like the love child of two ageing creatives ultimately trying to reconnect one of their babies to a more switched on and ultimately demanding younger audience.
The plot to Lloyd Webber and Stilgoe’s musical is considerably thinner than National Rail’s annual timetable. Control (an imaginative nine year old child) is playing with his toy trains, creating a world championship race in his bedroom. Here international engines compete against each other for the championship, friendship and, something a little closer to the pistons, the love of another engine.
While Starlight has never boasted one of the Lord’s best soundtracks, its infusion of pop, rock, hip-hop and gospel has always been a crowd pleaser. However, in a slightly misguided judgement some of the better songs have been ruined by the addition of a dance beat, which leaves this already dated production feeling even more so.
The cast are energised and enthusiastic; they attack their respective rôles with gusto and belt out the songs with aplomb. Particular credit must be given to Lothair Eaton as the blues-inspired Poppa and Amanda Coutts as Pearl – whose part of the beautiful new duet, I Do, with Rusty (Kristopher Harding) is a real showstopper and only highlights the inherent faults with the original score even more – but it is Ruthie Stephens with a show stealing performance as Dinah who hits all the right notes.
Nick Richings’ lighting design brings the rock element alive in a frantic chase of colour blocking and disco lights, but really comes into its own during the Starlight Sequence. Arlene Phillips’ direction and choreography utilises the space well, and with a distinct lack of ramps, jumps and other skating paraphernalia that Starlight fans may have been expecting, suitably compensates with strong skating and dance routines.
While Starlight is an enjoyable evening at the theatre, the production lacks the high level of finesse needed to make it truly first class; instead we are given a comfortable, if a little predictable, ride in Economy.