Odd Event Reviews... Starlight Express

Andy Simpkins reviews the roller-skating, locomotory oddity that is “Starlight Express: The 3rd Dimension”. Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, 24th March 2007

Forgive me if you may, Gentle Reader, I must use the following scene from 'The Naked Gun' starring Leslie Nielsen as the bumbling Inspector Frank Drebin to prove a point...

The scene is in Drebins superiors office. Drebin is receiving an angry dressing-down from his boss:

Drebin: “Well, when I see five weirdos dressed in togas, stabbing a man in the middle of the park in front of a full view of a hundred people, I shoot the bastards. That's my policy.”

Drebin's superior officer: “That was a Shakespeare In The Park Production of Julius Caesar, you moron!”

If someone had said to me 30 years ago that they wanted to produce a musical where the cast dressed up in flamboyant costumes and pretended to be railway locomotives and carriages and glide around the stage on roller skates, my money would have been on the person making the comments being gently but firmly placed in a small room with padded wallpaper, a very fetching canvas jacket with extra-long sleeves that could be tied up at the back and being supplied with all the mashed banana he or she could eat. But Quantum Leap forward a few years and you will find that that particular idea had taken root in the very fertile mind of one Andrew Lloyd Webber, yes, he of the face that looks like it has imploded due to a very small black hole taking up residence on the tip of his nose. But strange as it may seem, the idea germinated and grew into on of the most popular musicals that has graced the London stage. First opening at the Apollo Victoria theatre in London's West End in 1984, it has evolved and changed along the way with productions being shown on Broadway, in Japan and Australia. 'Starlight Express:The 3rd Dimension' is the latest incarnation of one of the West Ends longest running musicals, only Les Miserables has the honour of showing any comparable longevity.

It has been a couple of years since I attended a musical, namely the aforementioned Les Miserables, and it was a stroke of luck that I was scanning the website of my girlfriends local theatre and saw that an all-new, all-singing and dancing touring production of Starlight Express was due to hit Southampton in a month or so's time. Despite being performed up in London for the best part of two decades, I never got around to seeing it and I was not going to let this opportunity slip away...

Various people might grumble that touring and regional productions of a musical are second rate compared to the London productions. I beg to differ as what is on offer that particular night is no less better than what you would see at such grandiose theatres as The Dominion, The Haymarket or The Lyceum in London and the Mayflower in Southampton, formerly known as the Gaumont, is just as floridly decorated and just as spacious as its London peers.

The lights dimmed and a short dialogue is played over the house speakers between a young boy, reluctant to go to bed, and his mother who is using all of her gentle ministrations to get him stop playing with his trains and to go to sleep, is heard. Eventually, he seemingly capitulates and the bedroom door is closed with his mother wishing him a good night. Once the coast is clear and he is sure that his mother cannot hear him, the toy trains take on a life of their own and the first scene of Starlight Express, accompanied by the opening overture of the musical begins as the child's imagination takes over and the young boy, now simply known as 'Control', announces that the annual race to decide the best and fastest engine will be decided. From arches set into the backdrop of the stage, the contenders emerge. Up on stage emerge the Russian contender; Turnov in all his Slavic glory, followed by Nintendo, the Japanese bullet train. Tall, sleek and Samurai-like with the Rising Red Sun emblem, or Hinumaru, emblazoned on his chest and headband. Moving around the stage performing martial art-like moves, he takes his place with the other cast members as he is followed out by Ruhrgold, the German entrant, resplendent in all his Teutonic might as the British entrant, The Prince Of Wales, shuffles on to the stage. As is usual with the British rail network, there was a delay in his appearance, only after Control had called for him numerous times. Anyone who is familiar with the vagaries of Network rail will know only too well the scene that was being played. Finally, to tumultuous applause, the reigning champion, the American Diesel: Greaseball emerged. Cocky and arrogant, he stood at the front of the stage, confident in his abilities and secure in the knowledge that he reigned supreme:With the contestants all assembled onstage, the ensemble launched into 'Rolling Stock', a song extolling the power of the railways and their necessity for moving people and freight around the nations.

Everyone loves an underdog and Rusty the steam engine is no exception. Belittled by his faster and more elegant colleagues and generally shunted to one side, he makes a living shunting the trucks and coaches under his care around. As is the rule for the contest, the competing locomotives must pull rolling stock and, treated as a gofer by the contenders, he is casually ordered to get the coaches from a siding and bring them up to be coupled to the engines in time for the heats.

Out onto the stage, in single file, roll the ladies, or carriages: Pearl the observation carriage, Buffy, Dinah the dining car, dressed up like a waitress and Ashley the smoking car, dressed for all the world like the old fashioned girl in the old movies trotting up and down carrying around a tray of cigarettes for sale. These four shapely carriages introduced themselves to 'A Whole Lotta Locomotion', generally showing their metaphorical feathers and saying how nice it would be to be 'coupled' up to their favourite engine... Following this introduction, it was plain to see that Pearl had caught Greaseball's eye and she reciprocated in the song:'He Whistled At Me' and it was plain to see who she wanted to be hooked up for the races. In the background, Rusty sees what is going on and is crestfallen as he has a soft spot for Pearl and starts to see his chances for winning her favours start to fade away.

Next up on stage and not to be overlooked in the evenings proceedings are the freight trucks. The three Hip-Hoppers, swaggering and dressed in a streetsmart style with their basketball vests, shorts and bandannas on their heads. Dustin the container truck;rotund, covered in soot and dust and ever-cheerful; Flat Top the flat bed wagon and literally bringing up the rear, the gaily clad Caboose. They perform their title song :Freight', which explains their role and bemoans the fact that they might never be as glamourous as the locomotives and the carriages but they still perform a vital task in carrying cargo and all the materials that are needed in order to make society move.

One thing I cannot commend enough is the choreography of the show. Having 20-odd rollerskaters up on a small stage is no mean feat but to also have the black-clad scenery shifters, acting also as the race marshalls, move skateboarding ramps around the stage and then proceed to to roll up and down the ramps at great speed, looking like skateboarders riding the inside of a pipe or surfers 'tubing out', jumping off the tops and performing aerial spins and somersaults, is something else. Apart from having to sing, dance and project themselves on stage, the actors also have to learn how to rollerskate to a high degree of proficiency and anyone aspiring to be in the show has to go through a lengthy induction course.

Then all of a sudden, Control announces that there is a late entrant for the race and all eyes in the audience are turned upward as the next contender makes his first appearance.

Let's just say that the entrance of Electra is worthy of William Shatner. A single spotlight illuminates his face as he lowered down onto the stage where he launches into the vainglorious and self-promoting song:”AC/DC”. Nothing to do with conflicting sexuality but a homage to the power of electric locomotives. Resplendent in a silver uniform, a red, white and blue coxcomb of a hairdo and a rather alarming red codpiece, he strutted and rolled around the stage with his retinue:Joule, Volta, Purse and Wrench in tow behind him. Strutting up and down in front of the ensemble like the peacock that he was, you could see Greaseball's position as top locomotive being undermined and his hackles starting to rise in challenge.

Not to be outdone, Greaseball rises to the challenge and in return taunts Electra with his theme song: 'Pumping Iron' which sings his praises and proudly declares that diesels are the way forward and that Electra and his ilk are full of hot air. This song, accompanied by lots of self-important posturing and pelvic thrusts illustrates that Greaseball is not going to toppled from his position of power that easily.

Now you may wonder why there is the suffix:'The Third Dimension' featured in the title of the musical. Allow me to explain... . . as this version of the musical is a touring version, the production company could not allow or afford the luxury of having a rollerskate track being built around the periphery of the auditorium for the duration of the few weeks it was in any one town, as was the case with the London production, so a rather cunning alternative was devised. Whenever the locomotives were at the starting line preparing to commence their races, the booming voice of Control would tell the audience to don their 'safety goggles', for their own protection of course, and a large projection screen would be lowered down onto the stage where 3D film footage of the race would be projected. When we arrived at the Mayflower, I saw one of the theatre staff giving out free 3D glasses and I did wonder what their purpose was. I must confess that the 3D footage of the races, with the engines and their attendant coaches, punching and buffeting for the best position, did add another 'dimension' to the musical and when a locomotive hit an obstruction like a sign, it was hard not to duck or recoil when it appeared that a shard of it went spiralling off into the audience and for all appearances, looked like it was heading straight at you.

The first of the heats is upon them all , but before the race begins, Control announces that the British entry; The Prince of Wales, has been scrapped. This drew laughter from the audience and after it had died down, the first of the heats was ready to begin. At this point, the voice of Control told us all to put our safety goggles on and the projection screen was lowered down to just above the stage and the contenders are shown in silhouette behind it as they take their marks. After much warming up and flexing of muscles, the 3D footage is shown... On a dry-ice shrouded startline, champing at the bit were Greaseball, Electra and Ruhrgold and the fur flies as they skate their way down narrow tunnels and tracks. No holds are barred and fists fly as they all try to gain ascendancy over each other. The broken bridge looms in the distance and disaster strikes for Ruhrgold as he makes a daring leap, only to fall to his doom as he plummets down on to the rocks below. It is a two horse race, and despite the buffeting and jarring as they race towards the finish, the race is a dead heat and both contenders gain a place in the final. Both look at each other contemptuously and realise that the battle has only just begun.

Meanwhile, languishing in a siding, surrounded by the freight wagons, is Poppa, an old steam engine who used to be a champion but has seen better days. Propping himself up on the buffers, clad in a boiler suit and a Casey Jones style hat with greying hair poking out from under it, he laments, in the song:'Poppa's Blues', the good old days of steam and how the young upstarts of diesel and electricity have come on the scene and taken the romanticism out of railway travel. It was as the song finishes, he realises what he has to do. He must find within him the strength to contend in the next heat and win the crown back for steam. He declares this to the watching freight wagon who clap and cheer him in his decision.

The second heat is about to begin and everyone has wondered at Poppa's decision to return to the race. He is up against the Japanese Nintendo and the Russian Turnov. The race begins and once again, its every locomotive for himself. Poppa is visibly straining as the younger engines are nipping at his heels. In the distance, the broken bridge beckons and Poppa makes a Herculean effort and safely makes it over, closely followed by Turnov. Nintendo jumps but falls just short and he meets his demise in the same manner as Ruhrgold, plummeting to his destruction.

To the cheers of the audience, the projection screen screen lifts up and a triumphant Poppa rolls into sight, winning the day for steam, closely followed by a defeated Turnov. However, the race has taken its toll and he says that a suitable replacement must be found as he cannot race in the final. Everyone wonders who can take his place and slowly, all eyes turn to Rusty, who sees this as a chance to finally prove himself. However, a conflict of interest was going on with Rusty and the carriages. Rusty is itching to race in the final, but as a humble shunting engine, he needs a carriage to enter the race with. . Rusty has long had a soft spot for Pearl but she has been lost in admiration for Greaseball. The song: 'Crazy' has the carriages telling Pearl not to be taken in by Greaseball's bluster and swank and 'Make Up My Heart' has her wondering whether she should choose the steady and reliable Rusty or the proud and cocky Greaseball She sadly tells Rusty, that although he is a really nice guy, she has to go where the glory is and opts to race with Greaseball. She slowly skates off, leaving Rusty sadly wondering what to do next.

'Laughing Stock' is the next song as Rusty is mocked as being a train with no carriages and in a dire situation about entering the final. The song finishes leaving Rusty once again pondering upon his fate. Illuminated by a spotlight on his face and a backdrop of stars, he sings the song that gives the musical its name. Whether Starlight Express is the mythical deity that all trains believe in or it is a metaphor for the inner reserves of strength we all draw upon when we are at our lowest ebb is up to you but it was moving in the way that Rusty places his absolute trust in this source of inspiration.

It was at this point in the musical when Rusty, at his most pensive, had the good fortune, or not, for some bright spark in the audience to shout out:”Rusty, we love you!” which did raise a few snickers with the audience.

At that moment, the first act draws to a conclusion and the house lights come up for the interval. Even though The Mayflower may be a regional theatre, they still charge extortionate London for drinks and confectionery. Joining the queue to get half-time, ice creams for us both, just to show that daylight robbery is not a thing of the past, a small tub of ice cream was a hefty £2!I could have gone to the bar but The Massed Ranks Of Humanity would have been there quenching their collective thirsts and I would have probably got a drink and got back to my seat as the cast were singing their last song and taking their curtain calls and bows to the ecstatic applause of the audience.

All too soon, the curtain went up for the second act and it was Race Time!The second act was kicked off by the Hip-Hoppers body-popping and break dancing while the ensemble performed the Starlight Express Rap. The Race Marshals made their presence known and excelled themselves in their skating stunts. One went so far as to skate down a ramp and up the other one to turn head over heels in midair and land skates-first on a conveniently placed crashmat. After that had finished it was time for the contestants to choose the rolling stock of their choice for the race.

It was the next song the is sung by Dinah that raised quite a few laughs with the audience. A direct parody of Dolly Partons song: 'D.I.V.O.R.C.E.', 'U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D.' is a country and western tinged song about how Dinah, so long enamoured of Greaseball and his running mate in many races , is lamenting the fact that she has casually been dropped in favour of Pearl. Plenty of slide guitar was wailing away in the background and she even goes as far as to call him a “B.A.S.T.A.R.D” in the lyrics of the song while Buffy and Ashley look on sympathetically.

Unknown to everyone else, skulduggery is afoot as the rather camp Caboose sidles up to Electra. Sick of being just another piece of freight, he wants to set his sights higher than being pulled by a shunter, he wants to hang out with the big boys and Electra looks like his way out of the sidings. In return for being Electra's rolling stock in the upcoming final, he will make sure that Rusty is put out of commission, ideally permanently. Electra, still smarting from the fact that he was not the overall winner against Greaseball, readily agrees and the two concoct a plan to ensure that the final will be a two horse race

Once again, the screen is lowered and Rusty, who has been couple up with Dustin the grain hopper, is warming up at the starting line. Beside him is Electra with a very smug looking Caboose, who looked as pleased as Punch to be behind a big black man masquerading as a railway locomotive... . Third and finally was the glowering Greaseball with Pearl hitched up to him. The Race Marshalls give the nod and the race is on!... only to be followed seconds later by the sound of tearing metal and crunching wheels. It looks like Caboose had done his job well and Rusty has well and truly been framed with sabotaging the race. The Race Marshalls quickly enter the scene to call a halt to the race and Rusty is escorted from the scene with the threat of disqualification from the race. It takes all the little engines skill to talk his way out of what could have been a very sticky predicament indeed...

The three contenders line up once again and Electra and Caboose are surprised to see that Rusty is still a contender, this only strengthens their resolve to make the race a conclusive result in their favour. The countdown ends and they are off! Electra and Greaseball are so wrapped up in vying for first place with Rusty falling behind that they cannot see the danger up ahead. So wrapped up in their feud, their violent struggles to gain first place cause Pearl become uncoupled from Greaseball and, unpowered and under her own momentum, rolls along the track, unable to slow down or brake, to her doom in the wreckage... only to be snatched from the waiting jaws of disaster by Rusty and Dustin who steers a path around the sign lying across the track At the last moment, Greaseball and Electra, along with the duplicitous Caboose, see the danger and as they career off screen with horrified looks on their faces, the sounds of crashing are heard as Rusty, Dustin and Pearl roll over the finish line to safety and victory.

Surrounded by the cheering carriages and freight wagons, Rusty, Dustin and Pearl are ushered off to celebrate their victory and the stage is deserted for a few moments until a strange sight rolls into view. Greaseball, Electra and Caboose have managed to survive the crash but they are not a pretty sight. The stagehands managed to blend their costumes to give the illusion that they were one tangled mass of what used to be rolling stock and as they totter on stage, they give the illusion of looking like three drunken sots who have had one night out too many, which is just what the song they sing:'One Rock n Roll Too Many' is all about. Admitting defeat, they totter off in their separate directions to lick their wounds and ponder on how unfair life is.

The stage darkens and Rusty and a rather shame-faced Pearl roll out onto the stage. She realises she has made a grave error of judgement about Rusty. It is only now, after they have won the race and Rusty saving her from certain destruction, that she realises her true feelings for Rusty. 'Only He' is what Pearl sings to Rusty by way of saying what a fool she has been to be taken in by Greaseball's swagger and posing and that she has only now realised who it is she truly loves.

The final song is the well known and rousing Gospel song: 'Light at The End Of The Tunnel' which has the entire ensemble lined up on stage giving a truly rousing recital of the song. The Race Marshalls are given a final chance to prove their skills on the skateboard ramps and by the song has reached a triumphant conclusion, everyone in the theatre is up on their feet and clapping along. The traditional taking of bows followed before the cast made their farewells and rolled off the stage.

Starlight Express is a musical about many things, namely how to succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds by calling on the inner reserves of strength that reside within us all. It is a story about misplaced loyalties and reconciliation and above all, it is a good old fashioned love story. I have waited almost 20 years in order to see this particular musical. All I can say is that it has been worth the wait...