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Starlight Express Concert Workshop Performances: The Other Palace Theatre.

September 20, 2017

Seen on 14th September 2017.

I was lucky enough to attend the original show just a few days after press night in 1984. So I recall the excitement and innovation, the sheer spectacle and the fact that while it didn’t always make sense (and was ear-splittingly loud), it was enough fun that I saw it and the 1990s updated version several more times.

The show still plays in Bochum, Germany. Andrew Lloyd Webber visited recently, found that his score had been locked away… and decided to use his London Experimental theatre to take a look at the show once again. Introducing the work (and Arlene Phillips, original choreographer), the composer said that every performance during this week would be different, as they try other things, so what I saw won’t necessarily be what others did on other dates. This isn’t a review either, more a few notes on what did go on, in a little chug down memory lane.

Using just a few props – a rucksack or two, a foam brick, some red heels borrowed from “Kinky Boots” and 16 of the biggest talents in London, this was a pretty good attempt.

Much of the music remains unchanged, but a lot of the lyric has been polished – re-written to bring it up to date, lines changed to accommodate slight variations in the story, and a few songs re-ordered in the show for greater impact.

The story remains that of a little boy’s dream – a conceit introduced for the 90s revised version, and it works pretty well. It’s still a battle of the trains for speed on the track and the right carriage to haul, but it’s become more democratic, with lady engines and the women being stronger and more independent than in the original.

The casting is impressive. Oliver Tompsett stops the show as Greaseball, George Ure looked surprised at the reaction to his own “Starlight Express” closer to act 1, while Liam Tamne’ bi-sexual Electra is everything the new show could want. Sneaky Patrick Sullivan brings back C.B. with gusto, too – and the only really dated (but MUST be left in) – lyric in the show. Poppa becomes Momma, with Mica Paris bringing the house down twice, solo with the Blues, dueting with Rusty on “Only You.”

Rusty’s love Pearl is given the full Duracell / Energiser Bunny treatment by Christina Bennington. The lady never stops moving, even when stopping the show with “Make Up My Heart” and the new final duet with her Rusty.

Always another guaranteed show-stopper, Natalie McQueen’s perfect timing brought the house down with U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D, while Sabrina Aloueche found something new in Belle, and Laila Zaidi’s Tassita suggests this extra carriage should have a larger role.

With a great ensemble around them, certainly, this was a worthwhile exercise in many ways. I’m not entirely convinced that the mixture of 1980s and current musical styles always work, but most of the change do make sense. Truthfully, I’m also not entirely sure how commercially successful a full run would be either, and I do worry that the critical reaction will be surprisingly negative. The show has its own logic, but there never will be a deeper story – even if strengthening the religious theme is rather interesting.

My own suggestion (on the in-house survey sheets we were asked to complete) is that the show be done using a purpose designed marquee. Trains are played with hovering over or standing inside the tracks, and with full control of the space – unlike a normal venue – seating and tracks could be arranged so that everybody is within 4 rows.

If this event proved one thing, it is that the show does work best with everybody close, on skates or not.

A fun, fascinating and nostalgic 2 hours and 15 minutes. Well worth the £25, and a 4 star show in itself, if it were to be judged that way – with a full 5 for a truly starlit cast.

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