Review: Starlight Express, an 80s spectacle hits the road

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There’s something delightfully comforting about reliving childhood memories. Maybe it’s a way of distracting yourself from the fact that you’re getting older.

So when the Starlight Express steamed into the New Wimbledon Theatre this month I felt – against all my better wisdom – compelled to go see it. I went with my parents as a child, back in the days when London was a mysterious world far, far away from South Wales and a trip to MacDonald’s was something to get excited about.

My father hated the theatre. Hated it! If he stayed awake longer than ten minutes he was doing well. And yet… amazingly, by the time this one rolled to a halt, he was still awake! Because, back in the 80s, Starlight Express was memorable for being everything a trip to the theatre wasn’t supposed to be. Long? Nope. Boring? Definitively not. But a spectacle…? Absolutely certainly yes!

Such visual extravagance, such technological wizardry on an overblown scale. Crowds were dazzled by the lights, wowed by the armies of dancers skating circles around them. The blasting music – a blend of pop, echoed vocals and drum machines – did a good job of papering over Richard Stilgoe’s below average lyrics and painfully simple plot. Spectacle won out.

Which is part of the problem with this new version, which has played all over the world, updated by Arlene Phillips. Yes, the glitz is still there, relayed through the childhood imaginings of an unseen narrator; but the limitations of a touring production mean that the show no longer strikes the impressive punch it’s capable of.

Admittedly, the producers try their best (this is the first musical I’ve seen where the crowds are given 3D glasses) but the sequences that should wow are, frankly lacklustre for modern audiences and the choreography is poor. Worse, the best songs (Next Time We Fall in love, Only He) have been cut out and replaced with an abysmal new clappy-happy anthem (I Do) penned by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s son.

There are some good moments of course, which sexy Kristofer Harding as Rusty makes entirely his own; and it’s hard not to be amused by the countless gay sex references, nor to remind yourself that above the noise and the flash, at its core, this is a show that doesn’t pretend to be anything else but a lot of fun. …But leaving the New Wimbledon Theatre this week, I couldn’t help but feel tinged with sadness, and left wondering if some childhood memories are better left in the past.

Neil Spring is a novelist and founder of Village Drinks. Follow him on Twitter @neilspring.