Starlight Express at Edinburgh Playhouse remains on track

PIC: The Race is on: Turbo- charged musical about a train race still pulls in the punters
PIC: The Race is on: Turbo- charged musical about a train race still pulls in the punters

It’s interesting to contrast the two musicals that have hitched up in Glasgow and Edinburgh for the next fortnight. (Both coincidentally Bill Kenwright productions).

In Glasgow, Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers is an unflashy, emotional rollercoaster, where the book is key to its success.

Over in Edinburgh, Andrew Llloyd Webber’s 1980s hi -energy, roller-skating rock musical, Starlight Express, is all about spectacle.

Both productions work equally albeit in very different ways, and both received standing ovations from the audience at the end, when I watched them. But chalk and cheese they remain, with my own musical theatre preferences swaying toward Blood Brothers.

Blood Bothers has a high calibre, old school, musical feel about it. While Starlight screams 8Os London West End, the flashing lights and hi-energy rock and pop template overwhelming at times and now much copied and. That said Starlight has the more hummable tunes, right down to now obligatory mega mix finale.  

Call me old fashioned, but my heart also sank a bit when a large screen utilising 3D made its appearance intermittently. I’m all for an imaginative use of stagecraft, but if I want to watch the big screen I’ll go to the movies.

Still the current touring production of Starlight is what’s being reviewed here. And there’s no denying the pumping energy levels, roller-skating skills on show, (including some nifty acrobatics), and choreography by Arlene Phillips, who now directs here, are top notch. Even in the show’s current pared down stage, touring productions having to be scaled down due to the size of space afforded on stage for the performers. This is where the 3D comes, by replacing the permamanent swooping race tracks that saw the cast jut out into and around the auditorium.

The plot is the fairly staple triumph of the underdog, in which the boy gets the girl. Albeit unusually this time with the romance and rivalry coming between toy trains who are competing In a race to become the fastest engine in the world, with actors on roller skates playing the characters here. (The inspired idea was Trevor Nunn’s).

So it is that after some misgivings old fashioned Rusty the steam engine, (Kristofer Harding), throws his wheels into the ring in order to win both the title and the love of Pearl (Amanda Coutts). To do this he has to go up against “engine of the future”, Mykal Rand’s show stealing Electra, and diesel train Greaseball (Jamie Capewell). The music of Starlight has been reworked more than once and here sees a new song, I Do, by Lloyd Webber’s son, Alastair, replacing Next Time You Fall In Love. At heart a kids’ entertainment, this is definitely one for all the family. Thank god it wasn’t about trams, or I’d still be waiting for the curtain to come up!  

Starlight Express, Playhouse, Edinburgh, until Sat Jul 14. Tel: 0844 871 3014  

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