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A complete guide to 'Starlight Express' in the West End

Learn more about the return of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Starlight Express' which will begin performances at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre in June 2024.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Get your skates on! The one and only Starlight Express is powering down the tracks and back into a London theatre for 2024. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe’s musical about trains, which was first seen in the West End in 1984, and went on to become the ninth-longest-running West End show, is making a major comeback.

It’s full steam ahead for Starlight Express at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, which will be transformed into The Starlight Auditorium. At the very least, the venue will need to accommodate a cast on roller skates and a specially engineered track.

Read on for our guide to this iconic musical, and what we can expect from its 2024 London revival.

The origins of Starlight Express

Andrew Lloyd Webber actually began with the idea of making a TV series based on the Reverend W Awdry’s popular Thomas the Tank Engine children’s books. This was back in 1974, and he even started composing possible songs for the show, collaborating with lyricist Peter Reeves and artist Brian Cosgrove. Granada TV did commission a pilot episode, but ultimately decided that the Thomas stories didn’t have enough international reach to justify funding a whole series.

Of course, that was proved massively wrong when the TV series Thomas & Friends later premiered, to enormous success. But Lloyd Webber’s fascination with trains continued. He wrote novelty song “Engine of Love”, with Reeves, for American singer Earl Jordan after discovering Jordan could sing three notes simultaneously – sounding just like a steam whistle.

Lloyd Webber also worked on songs for a potential animated version of Cinderella on US TV. It didn’t go anywhere, but trains cropped up again: the story turned the main characters into competing trains, with Cinderella a steam engine, and the Ugly Sisters represented by electric and diesel engines.

All of that train prep work finally came into focus in 1981, when Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe presented two songs from a potential new show, Starlight Express, to the Sydmonton Festival. There director Trevor Nunn grew interested, although he thought the current material was on the twee side, and wanted to add more “spectacle and theatre magic”.

Choreographer Arlene Phillips and designer John Napier came on board, along with the madcap idea of putting the actors on roller skates to suggest the movement of the trains.

What is Starlight Express about?

The plot of Starlight Express has changed frequently over the years, but originally at least it began with a boy playing with his toy trains, and in his dreams, those trains coming to life; the boy also acts as Control. Rusty the steam engine is mocked by bullying American diesel engine Greaseball for being obsolete. Control then tells Rusty to collect four coaches from a passenger train: dining car Dinah, smoking car Ashley, buffet car Buffy, and observation car Pearl. We also meet trucks from a freight train and a brake truck, CB.

Six international trains arrive to enter the championship, along with Greaseball. One of them is Electra, a cutting-edge electric train. The competition sees pairs of trains competing: an engine pulling a coach. Pearl rejects Rusty and teams up with Electra, while Greaseball and Dinah prove a winning combination – albeit with some cheating.

An old steam engine, Poppa, enters to prove to Rusty that steam is still relevant, and surprisingly wins his heat. But he’s exhausted, so he needs Rusty to take his place. Rusty prays to the mythical Starlight Express for help.

In the second act, Pearl ditches Electra for Greaseball, who in turns dumps Dinah. In the finals, CB sabotages Rusty, and this time the Starlight Express answers his pleas and appears to him. Rusty is inspired and re-enters the race. Amid the chaos and in-fighting, Rusty wins but almost sacrifices his victory to check on Pearl. She finally realises he’s a good guy, and the whole group gangs up on Control to take charge of their own fates – and to celebrate a renaissance for steam power.

Starlight Express opens in London

Following a workshop in 1983, the team prepared for the world premiere of Starlight Express. It had its official opening on 27 March 1984 at the massive Apollo Victoria Theatre (now the home of Wicked) in London’s West End. The show had huge race tracks going right from the stage into the audience, plus a six-tonne bridge which could go up and down to join different levels of the set.

The original cast featured Ray Shell as Rusty, Stephanie Lawrence as Pearl, Jeff Shankley as Greaseball, Jeffrey Daniel as Electra, Frances Ruffelle as Dinah, and Lon Sutton as Poppa.

It was a commercial hit, going on to run until January 2002. There were numerous revisions, however, with new material being introduced from the Broadway version, including several songs.

In fact, the production was relaunched in 1992 as The New Starlight Express, and saw big changes made. A total of 12 songs were removed and five were added, the second act opening rap was rewritten, and, most significantly, two characters – Belle and CB – were removed altogether, which meant big plot rewrites.

Starlight Express on Broadway and beyond

The musical opened at the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway in March 1987, and ran until 1989. It was an opportunity for the creative team to streamline the story and make changes like giving Pearl a ballad, “Make Up My Heart”, and to include Lloyd Webber’s song for Earl Jordan, “Engine of Love”. Some references in the Broadway version were also tweaked for American audiences.

The show then went on to play in Las Vegas, Mexico City, and in major tours of North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

However, arguably the real home of Starlight Express is Bochum in Germany. There you’ll find the purpose-built Starlight Express Theater, which opened in 1988 – and the show has played there continuously ever since, reaching more than 19 million people. The venue has three levels with large train tracks, and features in the Guinness Book of Records.

This version of Starlight Express is closest to the Broadway production, but, under director Dion McHugh, there have been yet more changes. In 2017, Lloyd Webber revisited the show and decided to update it. Following workshops at London’s The Other Palace, directed by Phillips, several songs were added and removed, and the gender balance was altered by turning Poppa and Bobo into female characters. The British train became “Brexit” and the Japanese train became “Manga”.

What can you expect from Starlight Express in 2024?

It will be fascinating to see which incarnation of the show is staged at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre. Presumably it will be closest to that revised version in Bochum, but Lloyd Webber has also teased a “big new plot twist”, showing why “steam power is the future of the railway”.

What he calls the world’s first truly immersive musical will presumably be a large-scale spectacle making great use of the venue’s cavernous size, and plunging the audience into the heart of the action.

Luke Sheppard (& Juliet) is directing the show, and there’s set design by Tim Hatley (Back to the Future), video from Andrzej Goulding (Life of Pi) and costumes from Gabriella Slade (SIX). There’s also new orchestrations from Matthew Brind – and, of course, there will be roller skates!

Performances begin on 8 June 2024. Check back very soon for information on booking your Starlight Express tickets on London Theatre.

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