Thirty three years after rocking the West End, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe’s famous ‘train’ musical has eventually rolled into Lisburn for its local amateur premiere and, by anyone’s standards, this was a stunning production for a youth group with Fusion Theatre’s high production values to the fore throughout.
Boasting a bright and colourful light show that would put some rock concerts to shame, this futuristic feel-good fantasy is, perhaps, more ‘real disco’ than ‘rail depot’ at times.
Obviously, the show’s famous ‘tracks’ have long been replaced and the staging is now always on a smaller scale, but this imaginative production has lost none of the original’s appeal, excitement or message and it remained very entertaining from its bright production number opening through to its pyrotechnic-filled megamix finale.
Indeed, the young cast – who all had to learn how to skate before rehearsals could even begin – rose to the challenge and, under Ian Milford’s determined direction, managed to emulate the show’s underlying message that you can achieve anything if you believe in yourself.
This surprisingly fast and slick production was a ‘rail’ demanding ensemble piece for the energetic and hard-working rolling-stock cast, who had to dance and sing its way through universally good performances … on roller skates!
While all on stage deserve full credit here, a few principals were worthy of note, including Ethan Haddock, Rory Jeffers, James Marsden, Daniel Marshall, Abbie Watson, Ellie Bamford and Tiernan Ryan.
The main performance space consisted of an open stage with a futuristic-style railway viaduct as a backdrop below a large projection screen, while the band was positioned stage left (to allow for a larger skating space over the venue’s usual orchestra pit).
In a clever move that worked well, Milford portrayed the characters of Control and his Mother as real performers and not merely pre-recorded voices, and has the boy’s bedroom on a raised apron positioned stage right, with the ever-present Control being seen to be controlling all of the action on stage with his toy trains on a replica model of the production’s set.
This production was also greatly enhanced by its great costuming, which ranged from bright and sparkling to futuristic and glittery, while the make-up department added the finishing touch to the special look of each performer.
The challenging race sequences were all clearly realised and well-staged with the musicians perfectly building up tension around them.
Overall, the sheer physicality of the performances here puts this well-oiled production in a league of its own with many thrills and spills in Jillian Liggett’s stunning choreography, which provided all with the chance to go ‘loco’, especially in songs like Pumping Iron and The Rap.
Being performed on skates, one would have expected the choreography to have been somewhat restricted, but this was not the case as this brave young cast coped with Liggett’s adventurous, demanding and challenging movement and routines.
Milford, who again doubled as both Director and Musical Director, and his versatile band kept all rolling along at a steady pace with an up-beat, varied and mostly sung-through score that included everything from rap to blues, soul, pop, hip-hop, country and rock.
Musical highlights included: the production number, AC/DC; He’ll Whistle At Me (in the style of a 60s female vocal group); Freight Is Great (complete with its big full sound with nice brass and big chorus); Dinah’s Disco (with the brass section providing some authentic train whistles) and the memorable, Make Up My Heart, while both the blues and country music parodies brought some light relief.
The show’s message of hope and triumph for the underdog was well reinforced in the uplifting gospel-style finale song, Light At The End Of The Tunnel.
Thankfully, despite the challenges of staging this difficult show, the cast’s vocals, acting and movement were never compromised in any way.
With its abundance of loud rock-inspired music and its sparkling costumes, this fairytale dream race between electric, diesel and steam trains never runs out of steam and this vibrant and colourful production must surely be in contention for some awards – as ‘The Race Is On’ … for tickets!
Island Hall, Lisburn
Wed 6 Sept until Sat 9 Sept, 2017