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Joz Norris


Tape 146: Processing Starlight Express

  • Tape 146: Processing Starlight Express

As I said last week, I’m gonna have to write about my trip to see Starlight Express because otherwise I’m never going to process it. And again, as I mentioned last week, Zoe Paskett has already explored this territory on her Substack incredibly well, so anything I write will merely be a pale imitation of what she wrote on the matter. But there are some things we simply must all process in our own way. What’s the opposite of a collective trauma? I think that’s what those of us who saw it have all been dealing with for the last fortnight.

Hosting at ARGComFest this weekend just gone, during one of my sections between shows, I found myself needing to talk to the audience about Starlight Express simply in order to make some sense of my thoughts. When I returned to the green room, I asked Saima Ferdows how her hosting was going in one of the other rooms. “Good,” she said. “I was just telling them about our trip to see Starlight Express.” I nodded and said yes, me too. I believe we might spend the rest of our earthly lives talking about it.

So first, some context. Zoe and I were the only people on our trip who had seen Starlight Express before. (A few days before our allotted date with destiny, Saima had said she was concerned about going in unprepared, as she had assumed it was about futuristic trains in space, and was only now questioning whether it was actually set in the past, as she had heard it included steam trains. I reassured her that she didn’t need to worry as the musical was neither set explicitly in space nor not in space, nor in the past, present nor necessarily in the future. As far as I remembered, it was set in a sort of undefined, nebulous world of trains, kind of like the film Cars, only it’s trains. She then became upset with me and told me I had spoiled it for her, and I’m still trying to work out whether I was in the wrong or not).

Starlight Express is a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe about trains, with the individual train carriages played by actors on rollerskates. I saw it in the mid-90s because my stepdad was one of the backing singers for its West End run. I don’t think this meant he was physically involved in the production on a day-to-day basis, only that he had recorded some vocal parts for the big group numbers, and we therefore got discount tickets. This is the only time I’ve ever heard of musicals doing this – I imagine that usually a cast of professionally trained singers can make enough volume in the group numbers by themselves, but I suppose most musicals don’t also demand their performers to roller skate up a ramp a hundred times in an evening, so maybe every production of Starlight Express uses pre-recorded backing vocals, to disguise the sound of huffing and puffing, which would rather distract from all the flips and spins. I just don’t know.

I do know that it blew my goddamn mind. I must have been about five or six, and once I had seen Starlight Express I simply would not stop drawing the damn thing. “Please eat your breakfast,” my mum would implore as I sat frantically scribbling at the kitchen table, adding detail to my drawings of Greaseball the diesel train or Electra the electric train. “You’re becoming so haggard and thin, and we simply have no more wall space for drawings of Greaseball.” Her pleas fell on deaf ears. All I could hear was Lloyd Webber’s awful stuff, banging around my skull day and night, insistent as a promise. “I’m just the fastest thing you’ll ever see,” I sang quietly to myself as I drew, eyes bulging out of their sockets at what they had seen. “That streak of lightning you just missed was me.”

I took Starlight Express – the concept of Starlight Express – into Show & Tell the next day at school, armed with the programme and a clutch of my drawings. “This is Rusty, he’s a steam engine and he thinks he can’t do it but we know he can, we just know he can, in fact he has to,” I stammered to my class. They were used to being told about, say, a family pet or a recent holiday during these sessions, and struggled to work out what facial expression to make in response to what I had decided to throw at them with a nervousness that suggested my life depended on their understanding it.

I couldn’t tell you why I loved it so much. I was never particularly into trains. I’ve never been particularly into musical theatre (despite my writing about being obsessed with Phantom Of The Opera a few weeks agoPhantom and Starlight were the big ones for me, the rest I can take or leave). But something about actors dressed as trains, singing about what kind of train they were while skating around and around a theatre and pretending to race each other? This was magic. This was poetry.

But as the years went by, Starlight Express faded into a dim and distant memory. I didn’t become a superfan. I didn’t find out anything more about the show, or why it existed, or what it was trying to say. I just got on with my life and my interests waxed and waned, as they do. I got really into Tintin. I stopped reading Tintin. I built a robot that came free with a magazine. I chucked the robot in the bin. And so on, and so on, forever, just like the rest of our lives.

And then it came back. And some friends of mine were planning a trip to see it, so I tagged along. And Saima was worried about being unprepared, so I told her roughly what I remembered about the setting to put her at ease. And so we’re up to speed.

So the first thing I’m going to say about Starlight Express from my new perspective having revisited it is that none of the characters look remotely like trains. As a child, I came away with the distinct impression that I had been watching the secret life of trains, but looking at old photos of the original productions, I can now see that Starlight Express never did a good job of persuading you that you were watching trains. If it weren’t for the fact that around 90% of the dialogue consists of the characters saying things like “I am this sort of train” or “I need a new carriage” or “Momma, your engine’s conked,” you might not even realise that what you are watching is about trains. The person on the right of the above image looks to me like a cross between a knight and a hospital. Greaseball, in the centre, who I idolised as a child, looks like the floor of a Pret has come alive. The concept is not baked into the design, in my opinion. The early versions of Electra, who I thought was so cool he was slightly beyond my comprehension, looked like this:

Does it matter? No, I thought it was the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It elevated me to a state of being where I started to dissociate from reality and could no longer understand what I was watching, so that when inflatable lightning bolts sprouted out of the back of Electra and his henchmen, I genuinely thought all the actors were physically transforming into giant spiders, and I immediately tried to give it a standing ovation (the woman next to me, who was not part of our group, found me quite tiresome, I think).

Heading in, I did wonder how the new production would deal with the fact that Starlight Express is a musical that extols the virtues of burning fossil fuels, and ends with a song about the importance of steam-powered trains that opens with the bold proclamation “Electricity is wrong.” Surely these sentiments might look a little embarrassing in 2024, I thought? But I was excited to see that much of the show had been completely retooled for a new generation. In the original production, all the principal engine characters were male, with the female roles reserved for their compliant, servile carriages. Now, several of the engines had been cast as female or non-binary, so that was a good step forward. The carriages were still all female, but the song “A Lotta Locomotion,” which originally communicated the sentiment “Hello, we’re the carriages and we are women, we’re here for you, whatever you need, we’ll do it, we’re just so grateful to live a life of dedicated service in thrall to our man,” had been cut. In its place was a brand new song called “I Got Me” which was about how none of the carriages actually needed anyone, and were able to take on the world even without an engine. A little on-the-nose, perhaps, and not really how trains work, and certainly out of keeping with the rest of the plot, which still involves the carriages desperately trying to attach themselves to the best and most impressive engine in order for their lives to have meaning, but hey, it was an appreciated gesture.

Of course, a lengthy setpiece later in the show concerns Pearl, one of the carriages, teaching Rusty how to whistle at her with confidence and explaining to him that whistling at women, if done with the right amount of confidence, is key to winning their hearts. This felt like a backwards step for the show’s gender politics after all the good they achieved with “I Got Me,” but it was also a sequence that made me laugh uncontrollably until I couldn’t stop crying, so I’m glad it was in there.

But the biggest concession to the changing times was the addition of the character Hydra, a green train powered by hydrogen fuel cells who would constantly invade the stage throughout the show singing “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when – Hydrogen.” Ultimately, Rusty and Momma, the steam trains, win their races by teaming up with Hydra the hydrogen train, and the finer details of how a steam engine manages to run on hydrogen fuel cells is left to your imagination. Nonetheless, Andrew Lloyd Webber has assumed this carries a positive enough message on climate change to still end the show with the song that goes “Electricity is wrong” and then proclaims the power of steam, only this time occasionally making the word “steam” rhyme with the word “green” so we know his heart’s in the right place.

Look, I could keep writing this thing forever, but I have to wrap it up at some point. I don’t even have time to get into the bit where the entire plot stops so Momma can sing a comedy number outlining the formula behind blues music before pivoting into the observation “Never borrow no mouth organ, not even from your best friend, because though you may survive the blowing, the sucking’s gonna get you in the end.” I just don’t have time.

Zoe has already articulately explored in her newsletter the true mystery of the show, which is that nobody actually explains what the Starlight Express is, they just constantly tell Rusty he has to find it. It’s implied to be a train, but also often referred to as though it’s more of a quality, and we never meet it as a character of its own. Eventually, just in time for the third act, Rusty asks the Starlight Express directly if it is real, yes or no, then his mum says that she is it, and that she is also him, and then he gets some hydrogen and wins the race. I believe the Starlight Express is a metaphor for chutzpah, but perhaps I’m missing something important. I was too dazzled by the lighting in this sequence to really pay too much attention to the words.

Sometimes you confront an old ghost from your childhood and realise it doesn’t have the same power over you it once did. It feels faded, old, grey. I remember going to Disneyland Paris as a kid and fleeing in tears from the dragon’s cave under the castle because it was so scary. I went back there as a teenager and went face-to-snout with the dragon and felt nothing at all – no sense of achievement, of overcoming old fears, of vanquishing an old foe. I was just a fifteen-year-old boy standing in front of an animatronic dragon, trying to make himself feel something (my favourite line from the early drafts of Notting Hill).

I’m so delighted to report that the power of Starlight Express over my imagination has not been dimmed by the years. It remains just as baffling and overwhelming and confusing and inspiring and wonderful and batshit mad as I hoped it might be. I do recommend you all go and see it, it’s really quite something.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Lorna Rose Treen and Jonathan Oldfield’s parody of Woman’s Hour, Time Of The Weekis out now on BBC Sounds, with an incredible cast of comedy legends. It’s really silly and fun and brilliant and you should give it a listen.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Keir Starmer going “We did it!” It really makes me laugh. I’m not sure why. I guess it was 5.30am and I was a bit delirious from watching the Tories fuck off at last, but I do think the way he says it is very funny.

Book Of The Week – Still reading Milan Kundera’s Life Is Elsewhere, which I can now report is excellent. It’s about a poet and his mother who have such a codependent relationship that they end up dooming one another to a life of misery. I always think Kundera is one of the best at writing about the strange, sad narcissism of tortured, self-important artists, which sadly does invite the thought that he was probably a strange, sad, self-important narcissist, but at least he had the self-awareness to write about it with real insight.

Album Of The Week – Immunity by Jon Hopkins. I might go and see Jon Hopkins at Green Man in August, so I’ve been listening to his stuff. I’m not a big fan of techno, but there are bits of this album that see him more in sleepy, beautiful ambient mode, so I’m slowly getting into the more dancey stuff by stealth. I’m assuming that at a festival he’ll probably be playing the dancey stuff, and I think that’s a shame, I’d like it if he just played some soothing ambient and we could all lie down on the grass and have a sleep.

Film Of The Week – Not seen any films this week. Might go see Longlegs. Looks absolutely horrible, I’m sure I’ll have an awful time but I’ll come out feeling so alive.

That’s all for this week! As ever, do let me know what you thought, and if you enjoyed this newsletter enough to send it to a friend or encourage others to subscribe, then that would be hugely appreciated! Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,

Joz xx

PS I have no plans to actually charge for this newsletter or put it behind a paywall, but I do write it for free and the comedy and media industries are in a perilous state right now, especially for freelancers. If you value the Therapy Tapes and enjoy what they give to you, and want to support my work and enable me to keep writing and creating, you can make a one-off donation to my Ko-Fi account, and it’s very gratefully appreciated.

PPS The light shone in a nice way in the park this week and Miranda guided my hand to help me take a half-decent picture of it, because she understands light better than I do:

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