"It is meant to be nothing other than fun," pre-empts Sir A.L.W. in the press release for this relaunch eight years on, but it isn't even that: a shameless "never mind the quality, feel the width" exercise where the glitz is neither a supplement to substance, nor a front to distract from the lack of substance, but an end in itself. The "story" is a foregone conclusion from the first entrance of Rusty, the (somehow) cuddly steam-train; tunes are for the most part standard rock chord-changes, and Richard Stilgoe's lyrics, even after taking account of the passage of the '80s (i.e. inserting a few laboured hip-hop references), are largely barren even of his usual limited-appeal playfulness.
Skimming lightly over the matter that staging a musical in Britain in 1992 invoking the glories of trains, especially fuelled by coal, is sick beyond words (the British engine is sniggeringly "delayed" in the opening sequence), the show remains – even after its extensive engineering work (though not so extensive as to remove the hammer and sickle from the breast of the Russian "train") – obvious in its genesis (Webber casting around for an idea that would visually out-Cats Cats) and noisome in its at-all-costs one-dimensional glam. Yes, I felt a killjoy sitting in the middle of a loud school party (although they were louder about Prince Edward's presence in the audience than about most of the show); but by the time those children hit puberty they will be insulted by this musical-theatre equivalent of Chinese fast-food (half an hour later you're hungry again, and with an aftertaste of MSG into the bargain). Not even worth a low commotion.
Written for City Limits magazine.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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