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Boxing clever is all part of mammoth task to bring skate spectacular to the stage

By Herald Express  |  Posted: January 24, 2013

  • secret of blue boxes: Musical director Dave Rose outside one of the boxes integral to the show JonPaul Hedge

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YOU may have noticed some mysterious blue boxes down at Princess Gardens recently. In addition to the ones set up for work on The Banjo, there are now four more attached to the side of the Princess Theatre, Torquay. Together with the five lorries used to deliver the show to Torquay, they are all part of the mammoth production which is Starlight Express.

Based entirely on roller skates, when the production first opened in London's West End it was ground breaking.

Starlight Express opened to packed houses at the Apollo Victoria in 1984 where it ran for over 7,000 performances.

Nothing like it had been attempted before.

Although only 24 people appeared on stage, more than 200 were involved in making Starlight Express happen every night at the Apollo Victoria Theatre.

A track was built around the theatre creating a space where you didn't just sit and watch 'a stage' — the show was all around you.

Getting that particular show out on the road and touring venues would have been impossible. It was built into the theatre itself. Now the production team has worked spectacularly hard to get a production which has all the engagement of the original, but can get in to venues like Torquay.

To achieve that at the Princess Theatre the crew have been working around the clock.

The Rocky Horror Show, which ran the week before, took 12 hours to take down, finishing at 10pm on Sunday night.

Then, first thing Monday morning 16 theatre staff and an additional 10-man production crew started the 'get in'. The first 13-hour shift was followed by an additional 12 hours before the audience arrived at 7.30pm on Tuesday night.

I arrived for the first matinee and met Dave Rose, the show's musical director. Usually he would lead the orchestra from The Pit at the front of the stage.

The stage for this show is extended out in to the auditorium and seats have been removed. Plus, with the cast travelling at high speeds he would be in the line of fire.

So Dave took me to the village of portable cabins to the rear of the theatre. Cabin number three is now The Pit — and you can see where it gets its name from. An orchestra of nine are crammed into the metal box, with poor drummer James Newton wedged in at the back like a sardine. You couldn't sit with a cat on your lap, let alone swing one. They turn the strip lights off for a bit of glamour, and try their best to recreate the stage environment. Then they hope the digging work on The Banjo, just a few hundred feet away, doesn't get picked up by the microphones.

"We switch off the lights so it feels a little bit more like it is a performance," Dave said. "We do have an audience microphone in our cans (headphones) so we can hear the applause at the end of each number. So you can hear there is a show going on — somewhere.

"I have a camera on me so the cast can see me in the auditorium.

"It has a black cloth around it, so it looks like I could be anywhere in the building. It isn't normally like this, I have to admit. We were in Brighton before in their conference centre and there was acres of room, we took up three or four times more space than this.

"We are always backstage though, quite simply because the front of the stage comes out into the auditorium, but if anyone came off the front of the stage they would end up in an orchestra pit. That would be a really long fall."

The valuable musical instruments are driven to theatres around the country by the production team.

Dave added: "They are put into flight cases and it then gets taken on to the trailers. We have an amazing sound department which comes in two days before the show opens and sets everything up and gets it all working so really all we have to do is play. We are very lucky."

Cabin number two is for the full-time physiotherapist required to keep a show like this on the road. As well as helping with 'ongoing maintenance' it is there to help with emergencies, such as opening night when treatment was required.

Dave was with the production back in 2006 when Starlight Express took over the venue to set up the show before it went around the country. "The entire creative team took over Torquay for two or three months," he said.

"It was just crazy, but a really exciting process. The last time we came here we were in the orchestra pit. The show is even bigger now than it was. There are bigger set pieces and more things going on. The lighting has got so much bigger. So we can no longer fit in the theatre. It's all fine. If it means that we can actually play the theatre then I'm all for it".

Starlight Express runs at the Princess Theatre until January 26.

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