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Starlight Express – New Wimbledon Theatre, London

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.

Runs until 19th May before embarking on a national tour.

Photo: Craig Sugden

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    1. Richard Stilgoe’s original ‘book’ was very adequate. It’s been pared down to near-invisibility over the decades, in a series of ill-judged changes and cuts.
    2. ‘But I do’ – a beautiful new duet? Excuse me? It’s replacing ‘You Alone’ which really WAS beautiful – this is glurgaciously dull, awful, and taken to the depths of hilariously bad by the clumsy insertion of the We Will Rock You ‘clap-clap-punch’ at a seemingly random moment. I was there, and along with everyone in sight was trying to control my appalled laughter.
    3. ‘Lotta Locomotion’ is a vampy, sexed-up reworking of an originally cute little number for the girls. This is supposed to be coming from the imagination of a small child. It’s gruesomely inappropriate to have two coaches in costumes designed for a Las Vegas ‘showgirl’ production, and all of them behaving like sex-crazed holidaymakers in Benidorm.
    4. To see the full, proper show of Starlight Express, even though it’s also suffered bad cuts in recent years, get ye to Bochum, Germany. The Starlighthalle, specifically built for the production, is still after 21 years playing to full houses. But then they DO have about enough money still to keep the production values up.

    This is a tight, stripped-down, sparky little mini-Starlight, suitable for touring, well-performed, and has the distinct air of a ‘seed’ production ready to expand into something much bigger and better once a suitable venue (perhaps an obsolete Olympic building?) becomes available.

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    Nyree. I don’t usually respond to these comments however, “I do” with lyrics by Nick Coler replaced the original “Next time you fall in love” with lyrics by Don Black. “You Alone” appeared in a previous re-run. Personally I prefer “I do” to “You Alone”, but NONE can beat the original. But then, that’s just my opinion! Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the performance; once I’d got over the stomach churning and vertigo of sitting in the upper circle!