Rock and roller: Starlight Express 3-D is coming to town

Groundbreaking musical Starlight Express ran for 18 years in London, but touring the show was problematic until the producers embraced 3-D, writes Victoria Finlay

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 10:34pm

WHEN THE MUSICAL Starlight Express opened at London's Apollo Victoria Theatre in 1984, the inside of the venue was ripped out. The set makers needed to build a series of massive tracks curving through the seating, to duplicate the excitement of two trains racing each other through the auditorium at top speed. It wasn't a train set, though. The trains were played by dancers, and the dancers were on skates. It was a huge financial risk, as nobody had created a musical on roller skates before. It was expensive and dangerous.

But it paid off: Starlight Express played in London for 18 years and ran for more than 7,000 performances. It went to Broadway, where another theatre was adapted. At Bochum, in Germany, a special theatre was built just for the show, and it's been playing there for 25 years.

Touring, however, was always going to be a problem. Theatres don't like to make such radical changes, and it can't be done quickly. Then set designer Julian Napier had the idea of projecting the races in 3-D, and a new Starlight was born. Hong Kong will see it for the first time this autumn.

It is not just the racers who are on roller skates. All 23 characters are skaters, as well as the five swings, ready to take over at any point in case of injury (and yes, there are injuries). Even the coaches are on skates at rehearsals. The only person without skates is the répétiteur, who plays the piano as the cast practise.

Starlight Express has its genesis in a more sedate series of train stories, the Thomas the Tank Engine children's books, written by the Reverend W. Awdry. Andrew Lloyd Webber (now Lord Lloyd Webber, and composer of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Phantom of the Opera) had hoped to do a musical version of the Thomas books, but couldn't get permission. So he invented his own train story, loosely based on Cinderella.

It starts with a boy playing with his train set. His mum tells him to go to bed, so he does. He has a dream in which an old steam locomotive called Rusty is being bullied by the sleeker, glossier high-speed electric trains in the yard. He meets a beautiful girl locomotive and then, after many twists and turns …

I won't spoil it, but suffice it to say that after four races, against all odds, Rusty becomes a champion.

The score, as in so many of Lloyd Webber's musicals consists of high-energy pastiches of different musical genres, including rap, rock'n'roll, and country, with the delicious U-N-C-O-U-P-L-E-D ("I'm a carriage with no marriage / I'm a van without a man") parodying Tammy Wynette's 1968 smash hit D-I-V-O-R-C-E.

It was choreographed by Arlene Phillips, famous in Britain for creating the 1970s dance troupe, Hot Gossip. Phillips enjoyed another burst of fame in 2004, when she was invited to be a judge on BBC show Strictly Come Dancing, in which non-dancer celebrities are partnered with professionals. They perform new numbers each week, after which one team is voted off. It proved a massive success and is now a staple of Saturday night British TV.

Being invited to choreograph Starlight Express in 1983 was a surprise, she says. A couple of years before, she had told Lloyd Webber a funny story about how she had first learned to roller skate for a film. She was pregnant with her first daughter, and one day the producer came in "and saw me skating around seven months pregnant and had a panic attack and said, 'Get those skates off at once!'"

Then out of the blue, Lloyd Webber called to ask if she still skated. "I told him I did, and he said he was doing a show on roller skates, and he wanted me to do it."

Phillips looks back on those early days with fondness. She was working with men who became the impresarios of British stage. There was Lloyd Webber's score, Royal Shakespeare Company's Trevor Nunn's direction, and satirical songwriter Richard Stilgoe doing the lyrics.

"It was a time that cannot be recreated. We were experimenting in taking a theatre and turning it into our palace of skates," she says.

Phillips had never choreographed for roller skaters, or even ice skaters. But she and her colleagues created an award-winning production, one which requires a great deal of stamina from the cast.

The costumes weigh so much that they have to have extra strong metal hangers. They are stored beside the stage, as they're too heavy for the performers to dress in the dressing rooms. The show has changed every five years or so. Now it has hip hop routines (which are pretty challenging on roller skates, a cast member confided to me during a break), and last year they added a new romantic ballad titled I Do, penned by Lloyd Webber's 21-year-old son, Alistair.

But the biggest change of all was the 3-D race film sequence, which took 10 tough days to shoot in 2003 and much longer to plan. "When they first told me about it I was thinking 'great, where are we filming?'" says skate consultant Michal Fraley, who has been working with Starlight since 1987, and has written a book about the production.

"And then they told me it would be outdoors at a disused army munitions depot. In Wales. In December. I was like: "What's wrong with a studio?"

The location was a remote valley with its own narrow gauge railway system to carry all the bombs and munitions stored in tunnels inside the mountain.

"We were in there, and I said we had to clear the mud off the ground, because I didn't want to walk through it in my skates. They told me that was probably a good thing, because it was not mud, it was sheep s***," Fraley says.

The skating surfaces were pebble-filled concrete, and very wet. Even after they had been sandblasted to get rid of all the slime, it was treacherous "I was terrified that someone would trip. Even if they didn't hurt themselves, it would mean we'd have to stop filming, because the costume would have been destroyed. And we only had one of each one," says Fraley.

But set designer Napier explained that it was worth the risk. "He said we would get the textures and the sense of things flying by. And he was right, as hard as it was," Fraley says, adding that he loves looking at the audiences flinching during those parts of the show. "It's as if they're really there, in the heart of the race," he says.


Starlight Express, Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, 1 Gloucester Road, Wan Chai, October 4-27, HK$395-HK$950. Inquiries: 8203 0299