Bochum’s Blades Of Glory
Chris Cox for The Guardian
“This is control. This is control. Tonight is the most important night in the history of the world.” If, like me, you have ever fallen in love with Starlight Express, these words will bring a hit of nostalgia and a rush of excitement. For my generation of theatre geeks, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show marked our first proper experience of musical theatre. But after more than 7,000 performances in the West End, it closed in 2002, leaving us with our cast recordings to cling to and the inability to visit Pizza Express without humming it to the tune of Starlight Express.
The original London production opened in 1984, the year I was born. It cost £2.25m to put on, partly because of John Napier’s vast wraparound set which converted the auditorium of the Apollo Victoria theatre into a racetrack. When you consider the show it sounds like the ramblings of a drunk: “So basically a child’s train set comes to life and the engines race to be the fastest in the world. We’ll include a love story between steam train Rusty and first-class carriage Pearl. His rival, Greaseball, will be a sendup of Elvis. Everything about Electra will strongly suggest he’s bisexual so his first song will be called AC/DC. How about sticking in a bridge which spins in every direction?”
It sounds like an easy way to lose money but Starlight ran for 17 years, earning over £140m at the box office and spawning productions in New York, Vegas, Japan and Australia. The original production was completely reworked in 1992, removing some songs adding new ones (including the famous megamix), along with simplifying the story and the special effects and modernising the lighting and special effects. Back then, it was as immersive as theatre got. I first saw it aged eight and remember the roller-skating cast, dressed up as trains, zooming around a track inches from my face. I pestered my parents to play the cassette in the car so much that it wore out. I learned every word of it and performed my own version of the show at home. Unable to get an actual costume I would don a catsuit, rollerblades and sticking a toy train to a helmet, our patio became the stage for me to show that, ‘Nobody can do it like a steam train.’ I saw it six times in the West End and then it eventually began a UK tour that I honestly wish I’d never seen. Crammed into small theatres it was laid bare. Without the excitement of the track, the show was naked, the music wasn’t as good and the lyrics felt decidedly dodgy.
As a child, I’d wanted to see Starlight again and again. I still do. And that’s why I now find myself in Bochum, West Germany, where amazingly more than 16 million people have sat in a purpose-built theatre to watch the show performed in German since it opened almost 30 years ago. Where the mostly British cast have had to phonetically learn how to sing in German, ‘Freight’ easily transforms to ‘Fracht’ but ‘He’ll Whistle At Me’ is much more of a mouthful as ‘Dann Pfeift Er Mir Zu.’ Tonight, for the first time, the 40-strong cast are performing in English and I once again hear: “This is control.” With the rest of the packed audience, I let out a whoop of excitement because tonight is race night.
It was with some trepidation that I travelled to Germany. I didn’t want to find out that I had grown up and the show hadn’t. I wanted to find myself lost in the show, in the extravaganza. After years of going to the theatre I didn’t want to feel jaded. I wanted to feel like a kid again.
At Bochum’s Starlighthalle theatre – seemingly inspired by a 1980s leisure centre – the lobby is a Victorian train station, all exposed brickwork, buffet carts for snacks, bronze statues of the characters and an old fashion flip down departure board listing the cast. The stage itself is more sports arena than proscenium arch. The playing space is full of hydraulic bridges, lasers, a triple-level racetrack and seats on four levels including fully rotating swivel chairs for those audience members in the pit. So much happens in so many places that it’s almost overwhelming, from the 80s shoulderpad-inspired costumes (which I still desperately want) to the inline skaters, added in 2003 where instead of being on the classic quad skate they can perform stunts and tricks, flipping treacherously high in the air before landing with a thud right next to you.
The cast are as much athletes as actors, not so much triple but quadruple threats. Their singing, whilst high speed skating, seems effortless which is even more impressive considering they rehearsed the English version in just three weeks for this one-off performance. So many of the songs were already embedded deep in my brain but I’d forgotten the imaginatively titled, ‘The Rap’ or ‘Der Rap’ in German, suggesting Lord Lloyd-Webber was way ahead of Lin Manuel Miranda. LLW 1 – 0 LMM
I was sad to discover that the jaunty pop number Lotta Locomotion had been thrown out and replaced with the Little Mix-esque Whole Lotta Locomotion but the big duet Next Time We Fall In Love is ably switched for a new Alastair Lloyd Webber composed, I Do. It’s a real ear worm of a love song composed by Lloyd-Webber’s son which is a sweet touch because Starlight was originally written for his children.
I’d forgotten how Starlight even looks different to any other show. The skates give it a unique flow and pace. Arlene Phillips’ choreography manages to bring the trains to human form, capturing the sense of movement of a locomotion with each train having their own motif for movement meaning it never feels repetitive. I bump into Arlene before the show and she tells me that there are “quite extraordinary” plans for Starlight’s 30th birthday in Bochum and that Lloyd-Webber is cooking up ideas for new songs and characters. But this is a show which remains relevant partly because there is no relevance whatsoever to it. Starlight Express is a child’s imagination made real and captures our own sense of play. Maybe now is the perfect time to bring back a show that is just that: pure spectacle.
LLW got it right in 1992 when he said: “It is meant to be nothing other than fun with a tiny heart of gold beating among all its trappings. It also by its nature has to change.” Surrounded by families, it’s clear that many people who saw the show as children have now boarded Starlight Express with their own kids. While the heart of the show has remained the Bochum version has kept the show exhilarating and fresh, surpassing the West End version with it’s souped up staging and orchestrations which have stopped the show feeling dated. As I’ve grown older the simple story has taken on new meaning, it reminded me how much I wanted to be on stage as a child and I realise that I achieved that dream through commitment, determination and taking risks. The exact same things that make Rusty win the championship and get the girl, that patio performance I did as an eight year old seems to have paid off.
Starlight Express is so much more than a just musical about trains. I’ll be heading back to Bochum to see it again, even if it will be in German, because in any language it’s still possible to find a Licht am Ende des Tunnels. This production, much like Germany’s train system, leaves London in the shade. In the week where our two countries have been, like the song in the show, U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D, or G.E.K.U.P.P.E.L.T, it’s a joy to enter the world of racing trains where there are no leaves on the line or Brexit.
Published version to be found at: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/apr/03/bochum-german-starlight-express-andrew-lloyd-webber