Starlight Express ★★★★☆

Starlight Express appears to have long occupied a curious place in the Andrew Lloyd Webber canon. It’s undoubtedly one of the composer’s most successful musicals – the original London production ran for 18 years (over four times as long as the original Sunset Boulevard) – while a German staging has been running continuously in a purpose-built venue for 36 years. Yet – notwithstanding the odd tour – the fact that there has been no major revival in the past two decades might suggest that, unlike Sunset, Starlight could less easily survive without the spectacle and special effects (and sense of 1980s excess) of that initial iteration. And it is rarely considered one of Lloyd Webber’s seminal works, presumably even by himself, if its frequent omission from his official publicity biogs is anything to go by. It would be difficult not to posit the opinion that as a piece of theatre it favoured spectacle over substance.

This long-awaited London revival, at the spectacularly transformed Troubadour Theatre in Wembley Park, does little to change that. The plot – involving trains racing in a child’s imagination – is certainly slight, and at times a little nonsensical. That said, there are many standout musical numbers, demonstrating Lloyd Webber’s skills as a tunesmith as clearly as ever. From the emotional to the more energetic, they burst with melody. There are some flashes of wit in Richard Stilgoe’s lyrics (though not as many as one may wish for if one has followed his past work in the field of comedic songwriting). However, this is not Starlight Express as we know it – a number of songs and characters have been replaced (often not for the better), existing songs radically reworked, and existing characters gender-switched.

Once again ALW seems unable to resist the urge to leave his old shows alone. While this is in some ways presumably an attempt to bring the show “up-to-date“ and deflect possible accusations of gender stereotyping that may have been less prevalent when the musical was first conceived, given that many audiences will doubtless be flocking to it out of a sense of nostalgia, one cannot help wondering whether they would not have simply preferred Starlight as they know and love it – and have been listening to it (in the form of the original cast album) during its long absence from the stage. And (not unusually for Lloyd Webber – or indeed many a composer) some of what’s new isn’t actually new, with one of the previously unheard numbers (I Am Me) lifting music (and even some of Jim Steinman’s lyrics) from Whistle Down The Wind.

But – and this is a very significant “but” – it seems almost churlish to subject Starlight to the same kind of critical scrutiny that may be applied to a “conventional” musical. This isn’t really a musical – it’s an event, an experience, a goosebump-filled theatrical theme park ride that sends shivers down the spine and makes you gasp in wonder at the sheer brilliance of the cast, who – all on roller-skates, all playing trains – sing, dance, and act, while performing the most astonishing feats of skating around you, accompanied by some of the most breathtaking lighting imaginable. There is simply nothing else quite like it. So even though I don’t deny I would in many ways have preferred to re-experience the original, until such time as time travel permits such an escapade, this revival is certainly the next best thing. And an extremely good thing at that.