The Theatreguide.London Review
Barbican Theatre Summer 2019
It is fifty years since
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice announced their arrival with the
first of the modern mega-musicals.
This revival, first seen
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre last year, reminds us that much of
what seemed revolutionary in 1969 has become familiar and even
conventional in musicals since then.
What is likely to strike
most now is less the songs than some staging effects and Tim Rice's
quiet historical revisionism in telling the story of Jesus.
Infamously, the original
Broadway production was directed by Tom
O'Horgan, that briefly trendy (He also did Hair) master of
too-much-ness, swamping the show with razzle-dazzle like performers
rising out of the stage or descending from the rafters or costumes
that dwarfed their wearers.
Here director Timothy
designer Tom Scutt opt for almost-too-little-ness. A mainly bare
stage has only one prominent element, a large cross lying on the
ground to double as runway, playing space and (in an easy sight gag)
the Last Supper table.
Most of the action takes
place in half-light
or less, a general darkness offering little to the eye.
In a partial
salute to the open theatricality of fifty years ago, all the singers
openly carry hand microphones, and a radio-studio-style mic stand is
permanently centre stage, so that solos like I Don't Know How To Love
Him are delivered in concert or night club style.
occasional frantic rushing about by Judas, almost the only physical
action lies in the several attractively muscular dances created by
choreographer Drew McOnie for the chorus.
While there is little
is new or unique in Tim Rice's imagining of the central characters,
it is notable that he has chosen in every case to find human,
imperfect and well-intentioned personalities.
Jesus is frequently
uncertain about his calling, sometimes sharing Judas's fear that
things have gotten out of hand, his original modest message becoming
Judas himself wavers
between annoyance at Jesus for losing
control of his followers and his image, and convincing himself that
Jesus wants and perhaps needs to be martyred, so that he is helping
rather than betraying.
Mary Magdalene is, as
her signature song
implies, a simple woman out of her depth with real emotion. And far
from being the villain of the piece, Pilate is shown to be
sympathetic to Jesus and aware that he poses not threat to Roman
rule, but driven to give up trying to save him by a mob whipped up to
a blood lust that needs to crucify someone, anyone.
plays Jesus as a man never fully in control of the situation, singing
with more passion and intelligence than melodic smoothness (i.e., he
tends to shriek).
Ricardo Afonso is the
strongest singing actor of
the group, sympathetically bringing us into Judas's emotional
confusion. Sallay Garnett is a little shrill in Everything's Alright
but does full justice to I Don't Know How, and Matt Cardle
effectively brings out the surprisingly softer side of Pilate.
I can imagine younger audience members wondering what all the fuss was fifty years ago over what seems now a quite pleasant, mildly thought-provoking and thoroughly ordinary musical with a couple of good songs.
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