Belle's Domain

The Wheel thing
Ever wondered who keeps the skaters on the rails in Starlight Express? Carole Waddis ventures behind the scenes to meet the team

“A split second’s distraction, a lapse in concentration, and we’re talking broken bones”

The lights go down, the crowd roars and suddenly skaters are whizzing past at up to 40mph. It’s never been done before and we’re not likely to see it again. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, the grand-daddy of all hi-tech musicals, rolls on.

Backstage, at 5.30 each evening, 27-year old Neil Copley arrives half an hour before the rest of the stage management team at the Apollo Victoria to check out the state of the skates. Neil is known as the skate technician, one of a team of three skate ‘minders’ helping keep Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, now in its 17th year, in sparkling condition. Neil’s job each night is to make sure wheels haven’t come loose, toe-stops and “clouds” (shock absorbers) haven’t worn out, laces are in place and skate plates are not too damaged.

It’s a crucial job. Far a dancer in Starlight Express, their skates are their life; they must fit like a glove. New boots or changes, the slightest twinge of uneasiness, and their performance could be drastically affected.

Starlight Express is Lloyd Webber’s ‘Homage’ to American music of the ‘50s and ‘60s. But as anyone who has seen the show – nearly 17 million world-wide – knows, one of Starlight Express’s enduring attractions is the thrill of seeing rollerball-type train-engine dancer-skaters racing up, around and all over John Napier’s specially constructed race track grid and massive steel girder bridge – sometimes at up to 40mph.

Each night, the skaters practically take their lives in their hands. A Split second’s distraction, a lapse in concentration and, says “Uncle Rory” – Rory Williams, skate coach and fount of all skating knowledge – ‘We’re talking broken bones.’

‘It pushes people to the limit’, adds colleague, Debbie Spellman, who as, dance captain, shares responsibility with Rory for keeping the dancers and skates well oiled and upright.

Both are long-time Starlight experts. Rory has been with the show 13 years – initially as one of the Rockies (“Boxer” engines) then as a vital ‘swing’ (the performer who understudies all nine male roles) – before evolving into skate “father confessor”. Debbie has been with the show for a mere 10 years but, covering most of the female roles, she, like Rory, knows the show “back to front”.

If any of the skaters have a problem on their toe-caps (the bits at the front that allow them to stop), or the truck (the bit underneath the skate plate) or the wheels, “Uncle Rory” is the one they go to. If a dancer suddenly finds they have to take over one of the roles and is not quite sure of the steps, then it’s dance captain Debbie who takes them through the moves.

“we start auditions in September, but we are still bust rehearsing into august”, says Rory, “It’s endless.”

That’s perfectionism for you but also practicality because, if a dancer is “off”, the understudy must be performance perfect, ready to take over at a moment’s notice.

One of Rory and Debbie’s hardest tasks is persuading new recruits to perform parts of the show they initially find frightening. Few of the 39 dancers in the cast are skaters when they first arrive and they only become relaxed and proficient through constant practice and the rigorous five-week induction course Rory puts them through on joining the company. Not, of course, that we, the audience, would know; they make it all look so simple and easy.


Meanwhile, back in the bowels of the Apollo, amongst the Lycra, foam rubber and fibre-glass costumes and train-helmets, Neil Copley is scanning the day’s cast sheet. Each day, Rory and Debbie send down the understudy list at around 6.00pm, indicating to Neil which understudies are on and which boots will have to be sprayed (the appropriate colour to suit the costume). “some of the boots”, explains Rory “have up to 30 layers of colours on them” – one of the reasons skate boots wear out so quickly.

The “war and tear” bill on Starlight Express is understandably high; weekly cobblers, toe-stops and skate plate repairs run into hundreds of pounds. Some dancers, of course, are harder on their skates than others. Boys are harder on them than girls. And the sweat is a killer, explains Rory.

ShowTime approaches. Rory has taken the “warm-up”, essential to dancers to loosen up their muscles. Now he and Debbie take up their positions in the wings or elsewhere backstage, keeping a watchful eye just to make sure everything goes OK. And tomorrow, it will start all over again.

CAROLE WOODS is a freelance journalist, writer and theatre critic. Starlight Express is at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. Tel 020 7416 6070