All aboard the Starlight Express!

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Original London cast reunion celebrates 40 years since the show’s memorable premiere at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, London

(Images credit: Colin Miller)
(Images credit: Colin Miller)

When Starlight Express premiered on 27 March 1984 at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, history was made. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Richard Stilgoe and direction by Trevor Nunn, this was a piece of immersive theatre – four decades before that term had even been coined. John Napier’s groundbreaking set, for which the theatre had to be specially modified, incorporated a track winding through the audience, from the dress circle to the stalls; a giant swinging bridge, to transport skaters to different levels; and a skating bowl, which allowed skaters to ramp up their speed.

The performers themselves had to learn new, often dangerous, skills, incorporating skating tricks alongside singing, acting and Arlene Phillips’s inventive choreography.

Everyone involved – performers, creative and crew – knew that they were part of something monumental, something that would change their paths – and the path of Musical Theatre – forever. Particularly for those members comprising the original London cast, but also for subsequent London casts (the show went on to run for nearly 18 years at its Apollo Victoria home), there was a sense that they were, in a way, pioneers, who were paving the way for the show’s later incarnations in Bochum, Germany, and all around the world.

Original dance captain and organiser Mark Davis with original choreographer Arlene Phillips

So it was little wonder that emotions were running high when nearly 100 London cast members gathered together on Thursday 28 March, 40 years and one day after that eventful premiere. The venue was Roller City, Campus West, Welwyn Garden City, and for three hours, from 6pm until 9pm, performers, creatives and their families skated, laughed, took selfies, and reminisced.

Organised by Mark Davis, the show’s original dance captain, and his wife Kim Leeson, whose first run starring as Pearl began in 1985, the event brought together such iconic performers as Danny John-Jules (the original Rocky I), Frances Ruffelle (the original Dinah) and Ray Shell (the original Rusty), as well as many others from both the original London cast and subsequent London casts (some, such as Koffi Missah, the original Purse who went on to play Rusty and then Electra, started off in London before moving with the show to Bochum).

Choreographer Arlene Phillips also made a welcome appearance, arriving just in time to cut the anniversary cake before dashing off to Guys & Dolls, for which she recently received an Olivier nomination for Best Choreography.

Frances Ruffelle and Ray Shell, the original Dinah and Rusty, reunited

Most partygoers braved it on skates, with some even bringing their own relics from the show. Some, such as Shell – who was on strict orders from his daughters not to risk injuring himself – watched from the sidelines. The playlist was a mix of old and new, but the Original London Cast Recording featured heavily. Everyone – whether on skates, or off – united for the finale, a performance of ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’, recreating Phillips’s distinctive choreography and linking arms for the memorable star-shaped formation that closed the show.

There were some emotional reunions between performers who hadn’t seen each other for years, and exchanges of fascinating career stories – from those such as Craig Scott (Espresso, 2000-2001), who has stayed in the profession and now teaches dance, to Rose Coutts-Smith (Swing, 1985), who now works in couture.

‘It really was something, being back with the company again,’ Shell told Musicals after the event. ‘It was emotional, especially hearing the soundtrack and remembering people like Stephanie Lawrence [the original Pearl] who are no longer with us.’

Amanda Constantinou, Ashley (2000-2001)

General feelings of nostalgia seemed to combine with a sense of anticipation for the new Starlight Express revival, which sees Arlene Phillips return as dramaturg and opens at the Troubadour Theatre in Wembley in June. Most people were excited, but a few expressed concern about some of the changes that have been mooted or announced, such as a female Greaseball.

But this was a night for celebrating, for looking back, and for remembering how, 40 years ago, Starlight Express changed the face of Musical Theatre. There was much pride and joy, a huge amount of gratitude and a collective sense from everyone present that this was a show that changed people’s lives – particularly their own.

Richard Twyman (Espresso, then Nintendo, then Swing, 1997-2002) and Jodie Jackson, Swing (1991, London, and 2000, Bochum)

Read our Starlight Express feature in the June/July issue of Musicals magazine – subscribe here

Starlight Express opens 8 June at the Troubador Theatre, Wembley London. For tickets visit