Starlight Express review – Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, London ★★★★☆

Photo: Pamela Raith

Review by Carla Rudgyard

In light of everything that’s going on, it’s no surprise that people are looking for the comforting nostalgia of all things vintage. It seems we are in the age of the throwback, and perhaps that’s why Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express has made its return to London at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre.

Originally dubbed as ‘unstageable’, Lloyd Webber’s idea to pay homage to Thomas the Tank Engine using roller skating actors dressed as futuristic trains is certainly bizarre and ambitious. It’s a classic tale of the underdog, or under-train, with the outdated and obsolete steam train Rusty (Jeevan Braich) competing against the modern diesel and electric locomotives to win a race and impress a first-class observation coach: Pearl (Kayna Montecillo).

I suppose it sort of examines class and self belief in a Cinderella-style plot, except it’s human trains on roller skates and all set within the pretend imaginings of a small child’s dream who has a tenuous understanding of the railway industry. All of this is then accompanied with synthy 80’s music and campy lyrics (Richard Stilgoe) like ‘Freight is Great’ or my particular favourite: when ‘hydrogen’ was rhymed with ‘bye-drogen’.

For those that didn’t grow up with the musical it all sounds pretty bonkers, but bear with me as I try to win you round. In many respects, this show is not far off from Webber’s ‘Cats’ (I know I’m losing you here but stay with me) as the first 45 minutes are spent simply introducing the 20 so main characters and their features as a train in song. And then we get to the racing. Characters zip through the audience and across their track at impressive speeds while the auditorium fills with electric energy watching the cast navigate sharp turns and impressively coordinated choreography that is exhilaratingly high-risk.

Photo: Pamela Raith

The set (Ross Edwards) is certainly remarkable. The huge, vibrant electric blue circular stage has an outer and inner ring for dancing and racing. There’s even a huge ramp for scootering race martials to backflip off. When things get serious, safety rails glide ergonomically from beneath the stage. Oh, and there’s a revolve. And live video. And giant glowing planets that drop from the ceiling. And pyrotechnics. Visually it’s spectacular, and it’s for this reason that I’m finding it difficult to berate the ludicrousy of the concept, because ultimately I was thoroughly entertained from start to finish.

Daffy lyrics aside, the cast deliver each song with impressive vocal control and range, most notably Jeevan Braich’s energetic rendition of ‘Crazy’ as Rusty, Eve Humphrey’s hilarious performance of ‘U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D’ as Dinah, and Kayna Montecillo’s heartwarming love-struck warbles in ‘He’ll Whistle at Me’ as Pearl. It’s mind boggling to consider that the majority of the performers had to learn to skate in an intensive bootcamp within rehearsals, which adds an extra layer of talent onto everything they do. The script is rich in discussions of diesel, hydrogen and alternative power sources, but I can only assume that the cast were on a generous dose of rocket fuel to keep such fantastic and unwavering energy up throughout.

The costumes (Gabriella Slade) are also out of this world, with each character’s space-agey superhero-esque suit fitted with detailed individual features that glow, steam, or sprout giant inflatable lightning bolts (you know, the usual).

If you take yourself (and theatre) very seriously, it’d be easy to shrug this whole spectacle off as ‘naff’, but undoubtedly, I was thoroughly entertained. Leaving the auditorium, children and adults alike grinned and laughed about a musical that was as fantastical as it was nostalgic and daft. It might be that the bare bones of this show are as rusty as a dilapidated train, but with an abundance of talent (and a lot of special effects), Starlight Express might have proved that nobody can do it like a steam train.

Starlight Express is at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre until 16 February 2025