Starlight Express at Wembley Troubadour

Starlight Express is one of the most talked about theatrical openings this year. The show was originally on from 1984 – 2002 at the Apollo Victoria with the show that tells of trains racing to be named champion. The show has been considerably updated since it’s last full scale London production but essentially the focus is on Rusty, a steam train, who is trying to prove that Steam is still supreme up against Greaseball a diesel train and Electra, an electric train. We also meet the carriages, some of them designed to carry passengers including Pearl a first class carriage and Dinah, the dining cart as well as freight trains.

The book is bonkers but utterly fun. It transports you to a world where before you know it you are cheering for a steam train to win the race and hoping that Greaseball a train, finds it in her to reciprocate Dinahs, a carriage’s, feelings. There has been considerable rewrites over the years and this production takes it a step further. For fans of the original production the national trains are removed altogether, we have a new freight train Hydra, Poppa becomes Momma and there are a lot of tweaks that bring the show right up to date in terms of language and the environment. One other new addition is that we see the show through a child’s eyes, previously what was just a voiceover, ‘Control’ is brought onto stage and runs the show, they tell the trains off for fighting, decide the pairings of trains and carriages and commentates on the races with this constant presence reminding us just who is telling the story.

The music by Andrew Lloyd Webber has a wonderful balance of 80’s influenced sounds in homage to the original production combined with a more modern pop feel for other moments. ‘I Am Me’ a new addition is a great ‘girl power’ style song and ‘Hydrogen’ is a catchy refrain that helps the show look forward. ‘Whistle At Me’ has had a significant rewrite and this is possibly the only change to the show that sat oddly as the new lyrics try to modernise why it’s ok for Rusty to whistle at Pearl and whilst the sentiment is appreciated it misses the mark.

The cast is around 24 and a huge proportion of them are making their professional debut so it feels exciting to discover so much new talent in this show. One of those making their professional debut is Jeevan Braich as Rusty, he has a wonderful vulnerability about him but equally it is easy to see why Pearl falls for him. His vocals are smooth and really lend a modern sound to some of the classic numbers. Al Knott is the first female to play Greaseball and boy does she do it justice. This show veers away from Elvis impressions traditionally associated with this part and instead leans into their self obsession and ruthlessness. Knott manages to encompass all of this but still had me hanging off her every word and very nearly rooting for her to win!

The carriages are played by Kayna Montecillo (Pearl), Eve Humphrey (Dinah), Ashlyn Weekes (Belle) and Renz Cardenas (Tassita). I adored that not all of the carriages were played by women in this production but also I loved how they leaned into a ‘girl group’ vibe for them and each of them really had their own unique carriage characters shine through. Control was played by Arabella Stanton in the production I saw and she was wonderfully self assured and really helped with the impression that she was running the whole show with the way she commanded herself.

The skating is of course a huge part of Starlight Express with the whole cast, except Control and the Skate Marshalls, on skates. The cast whizz past you during the race but at other moments there is intricate footwork as well as fun synchronised moments. There is the odd shaky moment and we had 2 unintentional falls that I noticed but this didn’t take away from the spectacle at all, after all trains brake down occasionally don’t they! The skate marshals are on scooters and there is a real wow factor with them, with them literally flipping mid air at points throughout the show.

The whole production of Starlight Express works so cohesively together. The set, designed by Tim Hatley, is a race track with a huge central ramp and tracks that weave through the audience and this is used to brilliant effect as the cast fly around the audience. Not only is the track design impressive but there is a huge revolve which also rises and falls and adds to this constant feeling of movement. Whilst the set alone is impressive working with this is all of the other elements. The video design and animation by Andrej Goulding not only follows the trains around the track as they race but we also get leader boards during the races, Mario Kart esq graphics before the race with each entry having their own logo to make it clear who is racing with who. And all of this is just for the races, the rest of the time we see stars and numerous other effects which helps add to the child like wonder of the show.

The lighting and sound adds a another whole impressive layer to this incredible technical feat. Sound wise not a single word is dropped despite the cast whizzing past you at incredible speed and it is balanced perfectly with the band of 8. The lighting further immerses us into Control’s imagination whilst also helping us focus on some parts of the action when needed. This all however starts before we even enter the auditorium and front of house we are greeted with a plethora of mirror balls and an instrumental version of the cast recording playing on repeat, ensuring that full immersion begins early!

The incredibly high standards of the technical side of the show does not stop though. Costumes by Gabriella Slade are a perfect mix of homage to the original costumes yet adds a current twist to them, all whilst being practical and safe to skate in. The logos that appear in the amination are echoed on the costumes and distinct colours and looks help us identify each character easily. The costumes are wonderfully over the top and add to the idea that they have come out of a child’s imagination.

Starlight Express is possibly the most fun I have had at the theatre for ages. With a fresh, dynamic cast and a myriad of technical elements that come together to make this not only an utter blast to watch but a jaw dropping 360 degree spectacle.

Starlight Express is currently booking until February 2025. To find out more and book tickets visit their website here.

If you like this review you might also like my review of Next To Normal, Hadestown and Six.

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