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.
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