"Control" is the child in whose imagination the story takes place. Control serves as the show’s narrator, introducing characters, ordering them about and commentating on the races.
In most productions, Control features as a disembodied voice, similar to a train dispatcher or a station announcer.
Control is a bossy young child, who plays clear favourites with Greaseball the reigning champion, but also favouring Rusty. In the original production, Control gets increasingly controlling, until at the end of the show he is screaming "Do what you're told!" To which the trains reply, "Shut it, Control!"
During the introduction to the Overture, we hear Control's Mother settling him to sleep singing a lullaby, which is the first time we hear the melody of "Starlight Express" Dependant on production, Control either falls asleep and we enter his dream (Overture), or Control disobeys his mother, and continues the game in a hushed voice (Entry of the National Engines)
In the original London production, his favourite engine is Greaseball the Diesel. As a result he always looks the other way whenever Greaseball creates trouble. He later gets angry when the plot-line is wrenched from his grasps and his favourite engine is later defeated by the unlikely challenger Rusty.
Control is referred to as ‘he’, both by Rusty in the 1992 London ‘New’ Starlight Express, and in the story synopsis given by Andrew Lloyd Webber's Musical Company, which licenses the show to amateur groups. The programme for the 2009 New Zealand tour further describes Control as 'a nine-year-old boy'.
In other productions, however, Control’s gender is not specified. Control has been voiced by both boys and girls, and by female adults performing other roles in the cast.
Voice and appearance
In almost all productions, Control has the voice of a child, whether the performer is an actual child or an adult impersonating a child.
A key exception is the original production in London in 1984. During previews, while the material changed from performance to performance, Control was voiced live by an adult man using a booming, authoritative voice that some fans have likened to Sam the Eagle from the Muppets. When the material was locked down, a recording was made using an adult performer, Nancy Wood, impersonating a child's voice. The race commentary, however, was provided by a fast-talking race commentator, using a Texan accent, to keep pace with the live action.
Onstage or offstage?
In most productions, Control is heard, but not seen. Some non-replica productions have depicted Control onstage. Starlight on Ice featured Control as a child wearing a costume similar to Rusty's. The 2013 Johannesburg production depicted Control as a boy wearing pyjamas and a nightgown. In the UK tours, Control was briefly seen on the 3D screen. Control was also seen onstage throughout the 2017 workshop production.
Some amateur productions also put a child in the role of Control onstage.
Recorded or performed live?
In most productions, the voice of Control is recorded before performances begin and played back at each performance by a sound technician. The London production used Nancy Wood's recorded performance from 1984 to 1992, and Tara Wilkinson's from 1992 until the production closed.
In Bochum, however, Control is re-recorded with each new update to the show. In 2006 the production held a public competition to find the next performer to record the role.
These are some of the actors who have voiced Control:
- Nancy Wood (Original London, 1984)
- Tara Wilkinson (Revised London, 1992)
- Braden Danner (Australia and Broadway, 1987)
- Yumi Tohma (Japan, 1987)
- Lori Flynn (US and Canadian tour, 1989) – performed live
- Scott Westmoreland (US and Canadian tour, 1989 – understudy for Lori Flynn)
- Bela and Olivier Borchardt (Original Bochum, 1988)
- Julius Jellinek (Bochum)
- Jo Marie Dominiak (Bochum)
- Georgina Hagen (UK Tour, 2004)