Reviews: Not the first night - Derailment at Victoria? Never

Almost fourteen years after this popular show first rolled into the Apollo Theatre, Robert Hanks makes a return journey on the 'Starlight Express'

Some artistic endeavours exist beyond criticism - they push themselves, by sheer weight of popular acclaim or scale of spectacle, to heights where psephologists and quantity surveyors dare.

Starlight Express clearly aspires to be one of those. It involves several showstopping numbers, most of which are not musical: the original production cost pounds 2.25 million to stage (and that was in 1984, when pounds 2.25 million pounds was worth something). The set needed 750 gallons of paint and varnish, six miles of timber, two and a half acres of sheet wood and 60 tonnes of steel, and includes 1,500 light bulbs, 1,200 lanterns and 6,000 small lights. The performers have used 25,000 pairs of skate laces, 25,000 skate wheels and 17,500 toe stops, and have reached a top speed of 40 mph. Over seven million people have seen the London production, including Alan Newman, a postman from Kent, who has been 750 times at a cost of around pounds 21,000, and the Pearton family, who have come every week for the last four years.

Faced with such an overwhelming endorsement of the show's populist credentials, criticism seems beside the point. As a matter of purely theoretical interest, we might as well be clear that, judged by conventional critical standards, Starlight Express is not great drama. The plot, involving a fantasy race between railway trains, is only vestigially coherent, the characterisation null, the music derivative, the lyrics (by Richard Stilgoe) often vacuous - "Gotta be in the fame if you're gonna win the game," the trains sing.

Even on the level it aspires to, as pure spectacle, it is flawed. Although the original production team (director Trevor Nunn, choreographer Arlene Phillips, designer John Napier) came together to substantially rework the production four years ago, its fetishistic leather-and-studs costumes and Hot Gossip dancing give it a period charm it was never meant to have. Electra, "train of the future", seems particularly dated with his scarlet- sprouting hair and hints of gender-bending ("I am electric," runs his theme song, conjuring up unwelcome memories of Gary Numan; "AC, DC, it's all the same to me").

The feel-good story-line doesn't induce many noticeably good feelings, either. As Rusty zips along the track that runs through the auditorium shouting "Let's hear it for steam", the cheers have a slightly tinny ring: he doesn't look enough like a steam-engine to inspire nostalgic affection (in fact, James Gillan looks rather like Julian Clary, which takes some oomph out of the romantic sub-plot). The outcome is too predictable to create any real satisfaction; the big emotional numbers - "Starlight Express", "Next Time You Fall in Love" - are hollow simulacra of genuine feeling.

Still, the dancing has verve and precision, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's score is at its best an expertly constructed, tuneful pastiche. Just as there are times when only a Big Mac will do, so there are certain appetites to which we are all prone, that can only satisfied by a show like Starlight Express. You want fancy cooking, go to a restaurant.

Booking to March: Tel 0171-416 6070

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreInside a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

    £38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

    Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

    £35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

    Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

    £15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project