I know I don’t normally review theatre productions, but I just can’t resist for this one.
Starlight Express Workshop Performance, 15/09/17
The Other Palace, London
This was a very different production of this wonderful 30 year old classic. It was a semi-staged, 3 day run on a tiny stage. The idea behind this workshop style performance was that creative director Arlene Phillips had the chance to make changes to it to make it more current and acceptable in today’s culture. I will discuss some of the changes made and if I think they worked or not.
Please bare in mind, I have seen this musical twice before; once about 20 years ago at the Apollo Victoria and once on tour in Milton Keynes, I’m not an expert when it comes to Starlight but I am making these comments based on my own opinion.
Let me set the scene, the stage at The Other Palace is round and has a ascending audience. The band is located above the stage on a mezzanine style platform.
The show opened with Control making his way up to join the band and sat at the front of the platform. Already we see new additions to the show, this is the first time that we have seen Control in person, usually he is just a pre-recorded voice over.
Instead of having Control playing with a toy train set, they have set him up with a headset and iPad and having him playing a train based game on there, this is the first major update we saw.
‘The Entry of the Trains’ opens the show with a bang, a huge opening number and allows the principle racers to be introduced. There have been a few changes to this, the trains names for one have been altered to make them more relevant and one (although I think we could do with a couple more) of the trains is now played by a female.
The British trains name has changed from “The Prince of Wales” to “Brexit”, I personally am not a fan of this change, although this joke is relevant now, I think it will get old very quickly. I also used to like that the gag with the British train was that it was always running late, this was and still is relevant and therefore would still remain funny, however, they have changed it to being a bumbling fool which some people may find offensive and quite frankly, isn’t as funny.
There are a couple of new songs in the first act which provide the female roles with some more activity which I think is great. I’m glad they haven’t changed the personalities of the coaches, they seemed to be more present in the first half than what I remember from the original soundtrack.
If my memory doesn’t deceive me, they have cut “He’ll Whistle at Me” which is not a great loss, it is a boring and predictable song and never brought much to the show.
The freight trains, one of my favourite parts of the show, have changed also since the original cast recording. The used to be called the Rocky’s, but from what I remember, they changed when the show went on tour to the Hip Hoppers (I personally prefer the Rockys!) One of the Hip Hoppers is now played by a girl, which is fab!
I am so glad they haven’t changed Greaseball at all, he’s a fantastic character, one that you love to hate, and he brings a sense of American humour to the show which I think is important to the story.
Electra is also still the same and I’m glad of that, however, in this production they’ve got him wearing 8 inch red heels which I absolutely loved but does this mean we’re not going to see him in skates in the future? Are the skates going forever? I think it would be a crying shame if so.
I had a thought whilst I was watching the show, about the gender of the characters, aside from some of the principles couldn’t all of the ensemble, and perhaps Mamma/Pappa and the Rockys, be played by either sex? I think it would be great to change from performance to performance. Why couldn’t Flat Top be played by a male and have his understudy as a female? I think it would be great!
We then get introduced to Mamma (formally known as Pappa!) and she belts out her wonderful blues number and leads us to the end of Act 1 when Rusty gets his time to shine with Starlight Express. I was very disappointed with this rendition of this song, for me it is one of the most beautiful songs in the show and it’s completely different to the original. They’ve kept the chorus the same, which is great, but the versus are very different and I didn’t feel the song ever really took off.
The production itself is fantastic, the cast are incredibly talented and so funny and the creative team have made great use of the space available to them. I liked how there were parts, mostly during the race scenes, where the cast moved up and down the aisles around the auditorium, much like when it was in the Apollo Vic they would have skated around the audience. The races worked really well, and I loved how they wrote into the script that the “lights weren’t working and kept going out” because the races couldn’t have been staged properly in that theatre, and this also gave the audience the chance to appreciate the band without any distractions.
Opened with the much adored “The Rap”; so happy this has made the cut in the revised version. Fantastic song and brilliantly performed.
Red Caboose is a character I don’t remember from the original, maybe he’s just got a new name but either way, he has a new song which was fantastic and he’s an interesting character in the way that he plays with Greaseball, Electra and Dusty to try and double cross them. He soon gets his comeuppance in “One Rock’n’Roll too Many” (another of my personal favourites) which was definitely a highlight of the whole show, still just as funny as it was the first time I saw/heard it 20 years ago.
Pearl is not my favourite character by any means but she was given a couple of new numbers in this production and I don’t find her quite as annoying as I used to. Of course, everyone is routing for Pearl and Rusty throughout the whole show and they’re duet at the end of Act 2 is really sweet.
As it was a workshop production we were given feedback forms to fill in based on our opinion of the show. One of the questions was “were there any parts of the story that you found confusing” in response to this question, yes, there are two plot points that I don’t quite understand; Does Mamma die and turn into the Starlight? and Why do the Rocky’s hate Rusty so much that they end up beating him up? Maybe once there’s a fully staged version of the show I will get the answers!
I really didn’t want this review to be about the cast, I spend too much of my time writing “this person was great” and “I hate this actor” and really this post is more about the production. But, I can’t leave without just making a shout out to the entire cast, the principle performers were all fantastic and given that it is only a 3 day run their character development is incredible. The ensemble on the other hand, I really don’t know how to say it, they were just breathtaking, they all played swings and therefor were portraying about 3-5 characters each and still made it so easy to follow the story without the use of sets, costume changes and makeup.
I’m so glad to see more female performers in this show, as it’s always been quite a male dominated cast, however, I think particularly for Dustin they need to cast a heavier actor. There are comments made throughout the script about him being a heavy coach and that’s the reason Mamma breaks down in Race 1. I’m not saying the guy that played him tonight wasn’t any good, the complete opposite actually, he was brilliant and had a really stunning voice. I just think we need to see a bit more size diversity and this character is a great one for that.
One last thing before I go to bed – thank you, thank you to the creatives behind this new revised version of this amazing musical, for not cutting my favourite song from any musical ever; U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D. For as long as I can remember this has been my favourite and I would have been gutted if it had been cut. (Just like I was when Little People was cut from Les Mis, I’m looking at you Mackintosh.)
Please come home Starlight Express, London has missed you.