Starlight Express review: A neon fever dream you’ll watch with your mouth wide open

Jeevan Braich (Rusty) leading the cast of ‘Starlight Express' (Pamela Raith)
Jeevan Braich (Rusty) leading the cast of ‘Starlight Express' (Pamela Raith)

Who knew blunt force trauma could be so enjoyable? Starlight Express is back. And it’s a two-and-a-half-hour neon fever dream, where people on roller skates in iridescent costumes pretend to be trains, set in space, or the future, or something. It’s more spectacle than sense, an extraordinary creative onslaught, with songs about steam engines cranked out at max volume, all designed to delight your inner child – which it really does.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first (and better) attempt at the Cinderella story took theatre to new levels of excess when it opened 40 years ago in London. Mostly what people remember of it now is that the cast were on roller skates pelting around a specially reconfigured theatre at speeds of up to 30mph, something that, during its Nineties heyday, saw it named the West End’s most injury-prone show.

This revival in the reworked Troubadour space, directed by Luke Sheppard (who helmed & Juliet and the Live Aid musical), is a tamer affair, but there’s still a sense of jeopardy as performers clad in huge otherworldly costumes rocket past, and ushers tell us to keep fingers well clear, and that we can only leave our seats in an emergency.

And though it starts gently enough, with a little boy or girl (it varies each night) called Control playing with their trains, being sung to sleep by mum, it quickly pumps itself up to maximum. Soon there are dozens of train-people, in the imagination of Control, who spend most of the first act introducing themselves. There’s a dining car called Dinah, an electric engine called Electra, etc etc, and Control wants them to race. The one we’re rooting for is Rusty, an old steam engine, played by newcomer Jeevan Braich. It’s not the kind of show that allows for finely detailed performances, but he and the other 39 (!) cast members sing and skate very well.

Every time Starlight Express pulls up to a new theatre it undergoes substantial revisions – it’s the Train of Theseus, barely anything remains of the original – and that’s true here: Control is actually played by a child, rather than a disembodied voice as in previous productions. Gone are the trains with dumb names corresponding to their countries (Espresso for Italy, Manga for Japan), lots of genders have been swapped. But the big thing is that it looks a bit weird in 2024 to be hymning steam trains and booing the electric baddie, so in comes a new character – Hydra, the hydrogen train – to be our hero’s helper.

Everything about it is maximalist. Tim Hatley’s set has ramps and revolves and sliding doors, costumes by Gabriella Slade turn humans into Transformers/Power Rangers/living cartoon things. They add to the sense of queerness that has always been a massive part of the show, made even more so in this production with the addition of (and yes I’m aware how ridiculous this sounds) gay and non-binary trains.

Jeevan Braich (Rusty) and Jaydon Vijn (Hydra) in ‘Starlight Express' (Pamela Raith)
Jeevan Braich (Rusty) and Jaydon Vijn (Hydra) in ‘Starlight Express' (Pamela Raith)

The massive circular lighting rig is arena scale, complete with lasers, and Andrzej Goulding’s amazing video design throws galaxies around the huge hangar-like space. It’s like the inside of a feverish child’s mind. But, to be frank, it often sounds like a child has written the music and lyrics too. This isn’t even close to Lloyd Webber’s best score, and the lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, with contributions from Nick Coler and Lauren Aquilina, skate carefully between simple enough for children to understand, and childishly simple. And it’s usually the latter: “I am me and that’s all I need. Won’t get down, it’s my crown.”

Does that matter? Not really, given that the show takes place in the imagination of a small child, a useful get-out. It’s the sort of show you watch with your mouth wide open. It’s full on, it’s fun, and it’s for kids. And did I mention they’re on roller skates?

Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, booking until February 2025