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DR AUDREY TANG

 Award-winning business author and broadcaster

Leadership trainer and coach

Keynote speaker

  • Writer's pictureAudrey Tang

Change may not be what we want - but it's what we often need (within reason)...

That's NOT an election statement.

I'm referring instead to "The New Starlight Express" which opened at the Troubadour Theatre, Wembley in June 2024.


I was, like many I see on various forums and platforms, a huge (and I mean huge) fan of the "Classic" 80's version. It inspired my own development within the arts - I learned a Southern Accent to sing "U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D" like a pro, and of course, being a skater, there was always that aspiration to "eventually get on the Apollo Victoria stage". Clearly, my life took a turn to academia, and I step on stages more frequently to give a talk these days, rather than sing and dance (which I admit I miss).


Even of the time, Starlight could be considered "light years ahead" - it had an openly bisexual engine (Electra), and (although there were some questionable lyrics in the original - I'm referring to "The Rap" and Flat Top's comments about steam trains), enabled colourblind and colour conscious casting - after all, everyone was a train! But it did play into some romantic narratives that reinforced the already troubling view academics were expressing about fairy tales:

  • The Machismo and power (not to mention a specific "look") making Greaseball number 1

  • The long-suffering Dinah (admittedly he does apologise to her in the end)

  • Pearl comparing Rusty unfavourably to a fantasy - until he saves her life (spoiler alert...although not sure if that still happens)


...and in the same way as fairy-tales (or the stories we consume) influence our view of life, I was likely (or literally) as seduced. Not only was my wish to play Dinah (which I did in an ALW permitted charity production in 1989 - pictured), but on reflection now, perhaps it was less about the role than having a major teenage crush on Greaseball!


Over the years (and the production is still playing in Bochum, Germany) - changes were made to reflect the times - and I don't just mean the British train being called "Brexit":

  • They lost the character of Ashley the smoking car

  • Electra became more openly gay - or at least for the time choosing the Red Caboose as his preferred carriage

  • And instead of "A Lotta Locomotion" being all about how the carriages are trying to please their male guests and wanting a man to give them power "...that's what we need - if we are ever gonna take the lead", the new "I Am Me" is far more about women staking their claim on the world - "I am me, that's all I need, a number one, a champion"

  • Poppa became "Momma" - linked, I believe, to the role of Control being established as a child playing with trains (I never thought it needed that framing)

  • Roles such as the National Engines (not specified as such in the current London production) could be played by male or female skaters, as could the Rockies

  • I have yet to hear the new lyrics of "He Whistled at Me" - but I hear it's changed from a wistful dream about attracting male attention or even a "comedy" - now clearly derogatory - comment about sexuality - to something more meaningful in 2024.

  • And certainly in 2024 London, the costumes have changed, there's a male coach "Tassita", Electra is they/them, and the biggest "twist" is that Greaseball is now a woman - using she/her pronouns and still in a chaotic relationship with Dinah.


I know that there is debate on the forums about whether a female Greaseball works (with no reflection on the performance of the fabulous actor playing her)...but for what it's worth, this is my feeling: When I went to see the show in the 80's I always wanted to play Dinah (that is in part because I do tend to cast myself in lead roles - in my head...and explains why I produced and directed community theatre for over 30 years), but Dinah was all I could "hope for". When I go with my friends and their two little girls (who also skate and may well have desires to be on stage) - they can aspire to be Greaseball - a legitimate star racer in her own right, a bad girl for the sake of being bad, and wow - two of the best dance beats "Rolling Stock" - the show opener, and "Pumping Iron" to sing. THAT, to me, is worth the change.


...and on the "male power dynamic" - like it or not, I don't think "classic" Greaseball fits in this re-imagining of the show! (Maybe that's a broader statement that needs further unpacking another time)

However, I did say change "within reason" in the title...and this is where I do feel there was one spice too many in the soup...I question if Greaseball and Dinah needed to change to being British. Admittedly removing the National Engines means there's no reason for the Union Pacific and Southern Belle carriage to join the party as externals - but it would have retained the meaning to the stylings of two key songs - Pumping Iron and UNCOUPLED. While Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (also now placed within a "School assembly" structure - which allows us to simply enjoy the blend of French, Calypso, Line Dance, Rock n Roll and other musical genres without further thought), I do feel that the removal of National context for these two characters has impacted the songs. I read a review which suggested "Conscious uncoupling" as an update...but what was really wrong with Dinah's lament being a pastiche of Tammy Wynette's D.I.V.O.R.C.E.!?


There are essential, social, reasons for change, and I believe London 2024's Starlight Express has addressed that well, but artistically, perhaps it's just one Rock n Roll Too Many?


Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and award-winning business author and charity founder. She runs Wellbeing Media Studio, hosts Mental Health Matters on e360tv, and produces Skits and Quibbles: the arts and wellness show - giving upcoming performers the chance to shine - on the same network via her studio. As a performance coach, she delivers training and keynotes in the areas of Public Speaking, Wellbeing in Leadership and organisations, Team co-hesion, and shimmies her stuff on the dance floor every Wednesday teaching Burlesque.


To donate to CLICK ARTS FOUNDATION reg charity 1203549 and find out more: https://www.clickartsfoundation.org.uk/makeadonation.html


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