Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Starlight Express

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, additional lyrics by David Yazbeck
Bill Kenwright
The Lowry, Salford

Starlight Express Credit: Jens Hauer
Greaseball Credit: Jens Hauer
Electra Credit: Jens Hauer
Electra and the carriages Credit: Jens Hauer

It ran for nearly 18 years in the West End, and almost a decade after it closed, Bill Kenwright has produced this new touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical about trains, Starlight Express, directed by the original production's choreographer Arlene Phillips.

The story is simple and formulaic, perhaps reflecting the fact that no one is credited as book writer, but despite the ongoing motivation of the race and a bit of love story floating in and out, this is closer to Lloyd Webber's song cycle style in a show such as Cats than his book musicals like Phantom or Whistle Down the Wind.

However there is a story of a sort, framed by an unseen child being told to stop playing with trains and go to bed but secretly playing the game that becomes, to the audience, the show. The roller-skated performers portray trains with specific personalities: Greaseball is the arrogant, all-American hero; Electra is modern and flashy but sexually-ambiguous; Rusty is the one that all of the others laugh at but he is in love with the first class carriage Pearl.

Rusty doesn't want to compete when his partner Pearl leaves him for the flashier new trains, but the old steam engine Poppa tries to talk him round to represent steam against the diesel and electric engines. The various heats of the race build up towards the final at the same time that Rusty tries to resolve his love life.

Lloyd Webber is often very good at tapping into elements of pop music, which he does here, but this does date a show quite quickly. The style of the music takes you right back into the early to mid-eighties with bits of 80s pop, rock, rap and even some Depeche Mode-style electronica. It isn't a score full of sure-fire hits, but the songs are pleasantly poppy and some stick in the mind as you leave the theatre.

Stilgoe's lyrics, however, are awful. There are some occasions when he produces a genuinely witty line, but most are completely unimaginative with the most obvious, banal rhymes imaginable. The refrain in "Freight" goes "freight, is great"—this is not, by any means, the worst rhyme I could find but is indicative of the general standard of the rhymes throughout the show.

The original production famously played out the race scenes on ramps that went all round the auditorium of London's Apollo Victoria, but this isn't practical for a touring production. This version resolves the issue by asking us to put on our safety goggles, which are polarising 3D glasses (issued free on entry—take note those cinemas who rip off their customers by forcing them to buy new 3D glasses every time they go to see a 3D film), and then filmed sequences of the races in 3D are shown on a screen.

Does this work? Well it provides more novely than excitement, and the 3D films are directed by Julian Napier more to emphasise the 3D, with objects flying out towards the screen to try to make the audience squeal, than to give narrative drive. In fact the way the images are built up from layered real and computer-generated images makes the experience a bit like watching someone else play a video game.

As for the rest of the show, it often feels rather cramped and restricted by the set, mostly consisting of rock concert-style lighting gantries and backed by a screen showing insignificant projections that are rather like a sophisticated screensaver that you barely notice after a while. The choreography is suprisingly low-key and unexciting, even in something simple like a jive sequence in the first act, but when the skating ramps come on there is the promise of something more dangerous and exciting that is never really fulfilled.

The main performers pull off the characters well: Jamie Capewell is wonderfully arrogant as Greaseball, Mykal Rand is just right as Electra and Kristopher Harding is great at grabbing the audience's sympathy as Rusty, plus Lothair Eaton has the rich voice and the blues necessary for the lovable Poppa. The female characters, who are all carriages, are even less developed than the males, but Amanda Coutts is fine as Pearl and Ruthie Stephens gets plenty of humour out of Dinah the dining car.

Technically it is very impressive, with rock concert lighting designed by Nick Richings and a wonderfully-clear sound design from Ben Harrison with a tight bass that really punches you in the chest, something rare in the theatre.

Overall, it's a fun, undemanding night at the theatre with some decent pop songs that take you back to the 80s and choreographed sequences that take you back to Top of the Pops in the same era when Arlene Phillips was creating dances for Hot Gossip.

Reviewer: David Chadderton