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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
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.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

    £37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

    Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

    £25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

    £16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

    Day In a Page

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea