mon 15/07/2024

Starlight Express, Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre review - freight is kinda great | reviews, news & interviews

Starlight Express, Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre review - freight is kinda great

Starlight Express, Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre review - freight is kinda great

Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1980s spectacular skates into a new era

And they're off: the cast of 'Starlight Express'Pamela Raith

The reinvigoration of Andrew Lloyd Webber continues apace. New York is now hosting a ballroom culture, drag-inflected Cats, and the Olivier-laureled Sunset Boulevard, a breakaway hit last year on the West End, hits Broadway in the autumn.

And here is Lloyd Webber's 1984 large-scale caprice, Starlight Express, reinvented for the era of Power Rangers and Transformers, with women inheriting men's roles and the entire thing feeling as if the audience has landed inside a video game itself on overdrive.

I was at the 1984 West End press night of the original Starlight, as it happens, and vividly recall the technical glitches that beset the opening, as well as the general dismay expressed back then at a Lloyd Webber show sandwiched between Cats and The Phantom of the Opera that was sui generis, to put it politely, and raised more questions than it answered. What, for instance, was (and is)  meant by the celestial realm that would seem to be visually approximated by the show's title, except to offer this musical's version of the Heaviside Layer in Cats?

And how in, yes, heaven's name could the cast career around the auditorium going hell-for-leather on roller skates without sustaining serious injuries across the run? That quandary has at least been answered in a sparky new production, from Luke Sheppard of & Juliet fame, that doesn't offer the daredevil thrills of 40 years ago but is doubtless far safer to perform eight times a week. That said, the risk factor didn't keep the original from running 18 years and generating a German version in Bochum that came with its own purpose-built theatre; the Broadway iteration, by contrast, did a comparatively fast fade opening in the same season as Les Mis and eliciting its share of ridicule at the time.

Starlight back in the day was simultaneously bonkers and pretentious, and it's to Sheppard's credit this time out that the current version, Richard Stilgoe's lyrics intact but tethered to a score reorchestrated by Matthew Brind, is still nuts - best not to interrogate its internal logic too closely - but at least a prevailing good nature keeps proceedings from being taken too seriously: "it's so profound" is the show's unexpectedly droll assessment of the vaunted rhyme "freight is great", though I'm also partial to "see me flex / my abs and pecs," here sung by a chorus of diesel trains. 

Less oracular than before, this version is presented as the outsized imagining of the train-happy, pre-teen Control (Christian Buttaci at the matinee attended). The sweet-faced lad presides like a pint-sized Puck but knows enough to get out of the way once the skates (and e-scooters) are ready to rock and roll, and a cast made up of quite a few recent drama school grads making their professional debuts lets rip through a Wembley auditorium, safety rails visibly apparent by way of support. 

The stentorian Poppa of old - the show's equivalent Old Deuteronomy - is here Jade Marvin's likeably bluesy Momma, who is sassy, as expected, and also shares in the gathering message of self-empowerment ("Only You" seems an apposite song title) that connects this musical to such Broadway predecessors as The Wiz. The result is to ramp up the emotional content of what at essence is an adrenalised spectacle that grants pride of place to the protean design team of Tim Hatley (sets), Gabriella Slade (costumes), and Howard Hudson (lights). Andrzej Goulding's video design contributes to a Matrix-like world intended to enfold the audience in some alternate, cod-mystical universe - a veritable planetarium comes into view above us early on - that isn't explained but invites surrender and boasts energy to spare. 

We meet the disparate trains that will align with one another in the sequence of heats that passes for a plot, and the who-will-win thrust takes various detours that include a trio, "U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D." for three of the female contestants: Tammy Wynette devotees will note the relevant homage.

Romance of a kind comes with the burgeoning affection between the endearing underdog, Rusty (17-year-old Jeevan Braich making a terrific debut), the steam train facing down obsolescence, and Pearl (Kayna Montecillo), whilst a new hydrogen-powered character, Hydra (Jaydon Vijn), honours the shifting elemental landscape across the decades. The dining car, Dinah (Eve Humphrey), has a gift for spelling, and modern-day travel woes - staffing shortages, leaves on the line - cue sympathetic murmurs from a house whose capacity (1017 seats) is less than half that of the show's original West End home at the Apollo Victoria: that in itself allows for greater intimacy, which in turn allows performers like Braich to redouble their winning impression.

At times, the production, inflatable costumes and all, is so busy ticking off pop culture references that you wonder if the show itself possesses a soul, only for a burst of Close Encounters of the Third Kind visuals to remind us of the loftier realms to which the piece aspires. 2024 Olivier Award-winner Arlene Phillips (Guys and Dolls), an alumna of the original, is onhand as creative dramaturg, with Ashley Nottingham credited for choreography that takes a calisthenic workout to sometimes gasp-inducing heights (those flips!) 

As to what it adds up to? Your guess is as good as mine, except to allow Lloyd Webber to let his artistic hair down, which at this point in his hugely varied career he has certainly earned. There's something touching, too, about Rusty thinking his days are numbered only to emerge into the light at the end of the tunnel signaled in the climactic number. One could say much the same about a musical I didn't think would ever mean much to me again that in fact offers no shortage of gaudy, giddy fun, and in these dispiriting times, who would object to that? 

 

 

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