Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Starlight Express

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber; lyrics by Richard Stilgoe; additional lyrics by David Yazbek
Sunderland Empire and touring
(2004)

production photograph
Production photograph

Sunderland's Empire Theatre, now renamed the Sunderland Empire, has re-opened after a £4.5m refurbishment with Starlight Express instead of the oanto which has been an Empire staple for many decades. It's a calculated risk by operators (the actual building still belongs to the city council) Clear Channel Entertainment which seems to have paid off in terms of audiences. At tonight's performance both stalls and dress cicle were full and the upper circle came close, and I'm given to understand that the rest of the run is pretty well booked too.

It's the start of a new lease of life for a theatre which has, over many years, played second fiddle to its smaller counterpart in Newcastle. Now it has the facilities to mount the kind of production that no other theatre between Leeds and Edinburgh is able to.

Certainly Starlight Express is a good start in many ways: it is big, brash, glitzy, highly technological - and popular. It ran for eighteen years - 7,409 performances - at the Victoria Palace and is now pulling in the audiences on its national tour. But how does it rate as a musical?

It's very light on storyline, but what story there is appeals because it is the story of an underdog (steam engine Rusty) coming out on top at the end (there were a number of "ahs" from the audience - very panto!), and very high on spectacle. Unlike such shows as Miss Saigon (coming to the Empire next year), the spectacle is continuous, not just a few set-pieces: the company's roller-skating is extremely impressive, which, combined with not one but two 3-D filmed pieces and Howard Eaton's superb lighting plot which gives us a whole series of superb stage pictures, is a real knock-out.

There are only (only!) 23 people on-stage but the speed of their skating along with Arlene Phillips' choreography keeps the whole thing moving so swiftly that it seems sometimes as though there are twice that number. John Napier's basically simple but perfectly suited set design and often futuristic costumes add to the spectacle.

But what about the music? Ah well...

The first half was, for me, a little dull: out of thirteen numbers, just three - Make Up My Heart, Poppa's Blues and the title song Starlight Express - really made an impression. The second half is better: more memorable tunes and wittier lyrics. I have no doubt that I shall be lambasted by AWL fans but I have to say that he is at his best with pastiche: U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D. is an hilarious country and western number whilst the hip-hop Right Place, Right Time could have made it into the charts but for the fact that the lyrics are too intelligent (and now I've offended hip hop-fans!). To be honest, Starlight Express itself is pure Disney and Only He is a torch song in the grand tradition. And the final song, Light at the End of the Tunnel, with its gospel overtones, was a real joy.

It's not great music theatre - unlike, for example, Les Miserables or Lloyd Webber's own Jesus Christ Superstar, and certainly not in the same class as some of the Broadway/Hollywood greats - but it's great spectacle and fun, and you don't (as I mischievously suggested to producer David Ian a couple of months ago) come out whistling the technology: I came out singing (badly) Only He.

As for the performances, we have, in this country, a huge pool of young music theatre talent and have come to expect that, whether we see a show like this in the West End or on tour, the performances will be of a very high standard. Starlight Express is no exception. Tonight we had, not the headliner James Gillan as Rusty, but his understudy Chris Thatcher and I suspect we would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. His performance was impeccable, as, indeed, were those of the whole cast. Yes, there were a (very) few spills in some of the extremely fast moving sequences, but that is, I suspect, inevitable and they did not interrupt the flow of the show.

"Starlight Express" runs at the Sunderland Empire until 8th January

Reviewer: Peter Lathan