It seems ridiculous to think the main characters in one of the West End’s longest running musicals are trains.
But the success of Starlight Express, currently showing at Milton Keynes Theatre, is based on the ground-breaking idea of having the actors perform on roller skates.
I first saw the musical when I was 10 years old and still vividly remember how exhilarating it was to watch the performers glide round the stage while singing some of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s most memorable songs.
Rusty the Steam Engine is the central character in a classic underdog story which involves him having to overcome the twin threats of Electra the electric train, and Greaseball the diesel train, to win the heart of Pearl, the first class carriage.
Due to the constraints of a regional theatre stage, the performers cannot race around runways in the audience as they do in the West End.
Instead, the audience is asked to put on 3D glasses to watch the three races but this does not detract from the overall experience of the show.
Despite the musical being written 20 years ago, it perhaps owes much to the enduring complaints against National Rail that a joke about the British train “running late” is still funny.
But it is the joyfully uplifting music in Starlight Express that has led to its continuing audience acclaim.
In his glittering career, Lloyd-Webber cannot have written many ballads more powerful than He’ll Whistle at Me and Starlight Express, performed by the stunning voice of Kristofer Harding. who played the part of Rusty.
There are also plenty of laughs provoked in humorously choreographed renditions of Freight and One Rock ‘n’ Roll Too Many.
My only minor gripes would be the opening of the musical in which many of the witty lyrics in Rolling Stock, the second song in the show, are inaudible and the unnecessary introduction of the awful Whole Lotta Locomotion which jars with the musical excellence of the rest of the show.
Somehow Lloyd-Webber manages to transform a story about trains racing against each other into an inspiring tale about an individual’s faith in the goodness of the universe being rewarded with success and happiness.
By the time the cast were performing the closing number Light At The End Of The Tunnel, the packed audience inside Milton Keynes Theatre were all clapping in time as though they were at a gospel church in south USA.
It is rare that people in the Northamptonshire area are given the chance to see a genuine West End blockbuster. I would highly recommend the show as it is almost guaranteed to lift your mood.
Starlight Express is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday, May 4. To book tickets go toww.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes or call 0844 871 7652.