Back in 1986 Mrs Chrisparkle and I embarked upon a whirlwind assault on all the London major musicals. In the space of a few months we saw Chess, Cats, La Cage aux Folles, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera (third night, no less), and Starlight Express. The young Mrs C (Miss D as she was) wasn’t entirely convinced at the time of the credibility of choo-choo trains racing, falling in love, and praying to the choo-choo God, the eponymous Starlight Express. I, still being a relatively callow youth myself at the time, thought it was all rather exciting, magical and enchanting, and loved every minute of it.
27 years on – to the day, would you believe, we first saw it on 4th May 1986 – and we found ourselves at the Saturday matinee of Starlight Express all over again. Does it still have the power to excite and enchant? Absolutely! There’s certainly been a lot of changes. No Belle; Rocky I, II and III are now the Hip Hoppers; Pearl’s “He Whistled At Me”, originally sung after she’s been smitten by Greaseball, now comes earlier in the show as “He’ll Whistle At Me” when she’s still fantasising about the engine of her dreams; the outdated Ashley (we don’t smoke anymore) has become the much more acceptable Duvay (we do still sleep, however); and other songs have been cut, and other characters renamed. Of course, the major difference is that at the Apollo Victoria the race circuit cut right through the auditorium on an apron, whereas on this tour, the live races are replaced by filmed versions for which you have to don 3D “safety goggles”. It’s a clever way of getting round that difficult staging issue, and to be fair the filmed races are quite exciting and inventive; nevertheless I couldn’t help feel a slight sense of being cheated of live action – this is a stage production after all.
Primarily, though, this show is a visual and audio feast. Banks of strong, brightly coloured lights dart their lurid beams here and there across the stage and into the auditorium; special effects include noisy sudden thrusts of steam parping their way around the footlights, that made Mrs C jump out of her skin at first; superbly ornate and detailed costumes reflect each individual train’s character; and a cracking backstage orchestra give their all to make every chord zing. The whole presentation of the show is guaranteed to knock you out with vitality and stimulation, and if you are of Mrs C’s persuasion that, deep down, there’s not a lot of substance here, well who cares? It’s purely for sheer, here and now, in the moment, entertainment.
The cast are all expert on wheels and take their roles with gusto and panache. Kristofer Harding plays Rusty, our hero, the little steam engine with a big heart of gold, who is desperate to impress the glamorous Pearl, but what hope does a shabby steam engine have against a macho diesel or a slick electric train? Ah, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts; otherwise there’d be no show. Mr Harding has a terrific voice with a clarity and purity that perfectly fits the character. When he is finally blessed with his vision of Starlight Express before the interval, his rendition of that song is one long heart-tug, so that even the “trains can’t have feelings” stance of Mrs C would be banished in a flourish of Kleenex. A great performance!
And what of Rusty’s rivals? I really enjoyed the performance of Mykal Rand as Electra, full of neon glamour and with plenty of the AC/DC about him, as his title song suggests; a great singer and dancer, he hits just the right level of camp and brings out all the humour of the role. Jamie Capewell’s diesel Greaseball is high on vanity and attitude and he gave a very slick performance but I felt he could have been just a tad greasier and nastier; although Mrs C doesn’t agree, she thought he got it just right. Electra and Greaseball’s “One Rock and Roll Too Many”, together with Stuart Armfield’s nicely evil Red Caboose, was very funny and completely believable – you felt that after the exhaustion of that final race they would never again be the trains they once were.
Pearl was played by Amanda Coutts with appropriately sexy charm and I’m not surprised that young Rusty’s head was turned. She’s got a belter of a voice too. I also really liked Ruthie Stephens’ Dinah, a country and western carriage who suffered every interaction with Greaseball as if she were Tammy Wynette, beautifully encapsulated in the very funny “Uncoupled” song. Lothair Eaton’s Poppa has a great voice and presence and leads the whole cast in a very rousing performance of Life at the End of the Tunnel as a finale. And there were superb vocal and dancing performances from the three Hip Hopper trains, Robert Nurse, Lex Milczarek and Ben Harrold, who really livened up the stage whenever they were on and whose “Right Place Right Time” number absolutely hit the spot – funny and exciting choreography from the one and only Arlene Phillips.
A totally sold out Milton Keynes Theatre gave it a rapturous reception. Sadly that was the last scheduled day of this tour, but I doubt it will be absent from our stages for long. This production certainly keeps the old show alive and you leave the theatre high on exhilaration!