Co-op Juniors invite you to climb aboard the Starlight Express

Karl Lankester as Greaseball, Amber Bourne-Williams as Pearl, Holly Metcalfe as Electra and Laurie B

Karl Lankester as Greaseball, Amber Bourne-Williams as Pearl, Holly Metcalfe as Electra and Laurie Bertram as Rusty with the cast of Starlight Express, staged by the Co-op Juniors Theatre Company. Photo: Mike Kwasniak - Credit: Archant

Staging Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express would be a stretch for any youth group, never mind the added challenge of building a theatre in a gigantic aircraft hangar once used for testing jet engines and the fact many of the Co-op Juniors Theatre Company’s cast haven’t skated before.

“There were cast members who were worried about the skating and didn’t even want to audition but were fantastic performers, so we managed to twist their arm,” says director Rebecca Darcy.

At first, the company considered doing the majority of the show - about a child’s train set that magically comes to life - on Heelys (the shoes with wheels in the sole). That changed after a workshop with skating coaches Tony Morgan and Martin Harris, who train at Rollerworld Colchester.

“When we went to our first session at Rollerworld one of the coaches said ‘this is the sort of lift you’ll be able to do’ and then suddenly picked me up and whizzed me round really fast. That was slightly exciting but quite scary,” she laughs.

“The coaches were so impressed with the attitude of the cast and their ability they said ‘there’s no reason why you can’t do the whole show on skates’. They’ve been brilliant, giving some one-to-one tuition for those who hadn’t skated before. The training was at our studios but most of the cast went to Rollerworld nearly every Sunday evening to build their confidence and technique. It’s a big social thing too.

“As Tony and Martin said to the cast ‘we’re so proud of what you’ve achieved in such a short time, as you’ve developed into accomplished skaters with real technique - and that’s without taking into account singing and acting’.”

The 30-strong cast started rehearsing about four months ago. Darcy - who directed Phantom of the Opera at the New Wolsey and Alice in Wonderland at Snape Maltings last year - allowed two weeks for them to learn their vocals and get as much skating experience as they could. Noticing their confidence and performance dipping when they pulled their skates on during those early days, she wanted to get the show set quickly.

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“I also said for this show, quite different to a lot of others, they must be off book because as soon as we start rehearsing they can’t be on skates learning choreography, taking direction with a script in their hand,” she laughs. “It’s repetition, we just kept going until dancing on skates becomes the norm.”

As Alan Ayres, technical director of the group, adds: “Sarah Brown at Bentwaters Parks has been incredibly helpful by allowing us additional rehearsal time so the cast get used to the space - with the audience surrounding them on banked seating on three sides and appearing from a 20-metre tunnel at one end.”

The smash-hit rock musical, seen by more than 20 million people worldwide, hits the rails at the Hush House from June 15-19.

The train engines compete to become the fastest in the world. Underdog Rusty, inspired by the legend of the Starlight Express, takes on arch-rivals Greaseball and Electra while trying to win the love of first-class coach Pearl.

Express is the most ambitious theatre event ever staged at the venue, boasting a large cast, a vibrant rock score by Lloyd Webber plus spectacular lighting and effects for the pleasure of 380 people every night.

“It’s a high energy show, the songs are really catchy and it’s a great opportunity for any performer. The company felt it was great for the cast to have the opportunity of having such a challenging show and they really have risen to the challenge fantastically. They knew from the auditions it was a massive commitment and they’ve worked hard,” says Darcy, aiming to make this production as interactive as possible.

“Our production will be quite different to others because of the Hush House. When I saw it in the West End they had the massive bowl at the back, so we’ve got a removable ramp that I bring on in act two but obviously the structure of the venue is quite different.”

One thing the cast is probably relieved about is not having costume changes while on skates.

“The original costumes have all been made by our costume team and parents. I don’t think they could have physically done that. It’s quite different as a show because the cast don’t actually go off; they’ll move to the back of the seating but they’ll still be singing. They don’t stop. There’s never going back to the dressing room.”

As an added bonus Eastern Angles, who follow the Co-op Juniors at the Hush House with We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, are letting the company use their new dome as a furnished café bar where you can enjoy a barbecue for an hour before every performance.

How the Co-op Juniors helped me beat the bullies - read my interview wth Royal Ballet star and ex-Junior Gary Avis here. Read my Starlight Express review online tomorrow night.