Recognised as a divinity by many, but dismissed by others as a jumped-up charlatan, he inextricably runs through the culture of the western world like benefits cuts through the House of Lords. An icon for millions worldwide. But enough about Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose questionable record as a Tory Peer has in no way influenced my response to Timothy Sheader’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Seriously, it hasn’t. What is it that the Bible says about rich men and needles?
If a rock opera about the Passion Week provoked outrage in the seventies, it is welcomed to London with open arms in 2016. But then Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t really about Jesus, once you look past the title. It’s about conflicting priorities, conviction politics, the quasi-religious fervour provoked by mega-stars, and – most importantly – shredding guitar riffs. I bet the elderly nun that protested outside the original 1971 Broadway production with a banner proclaiming ‘I’m a bride of Christ, not Mrs Superstar!’ feels pretty stupid after reading that.
And Sheader’s production – the first British ‘al fresco’ version – neatly taps into the rich innards of Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s music. His is a lean, energetic and stripped back interpretation that makes up for the lack of narrative structure and emotional nuance with a powerfully sparse design and a strong, coherent subtext. Point Break’s Declan Bennett is a competent boy-band JC, but its Tyrone Huntley’s James Brown Judas that steals the show.
Jesus Christ Superstar, first created as a concept album in 1970 and only later translated to the stage, is a sung-through musical, which means it has no spoken dialogue. That’s right, no proper talking at all. So it relies on Rice’s lyrics for 24 songs to elucidate what took Matthew, Mark, Luke and John over 1000 verses and, consequently, can feel a little thin on the ground at times. There’s basically no character development, no cohesive progression and little in the way of exposition. But that’s not a bad thing, because it clears the space for the primal ideological clashes that drive the musical relentlessly towards the crucifixion. Plus it gives Lloyd Webber’s admittedly magnetic mix of prog-ish rock, gospel and funk room to soar.
Things are not black and white. In the blue corner, there’s Bennett’s angsty, fag-rolling Jesus, desperately trying to make his devoted followers realise that the change they want to see comes from themselves but unable to escape the role of saviour he has been cast in. ‘Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem’ is a joyously bombastic wrong-footing, with Simon and the fifty thousand rejoicing in their salvation, and Jesus despairing at their lack of real understanding.
And in the red corner, there’s Huntley’s scampering, simmering Judas, furious with the main man for his decadent failing to pursue real social justice and for foolishly believing the myths told about him. “People who are hungry, people who are starving, they matter more than your feet and hair”, he cries, castigating Jesus for washing himself with expensive oils in the iconic slow number, ‘Everything’s Alright’. “You want me to do it”, he screams at Jesus at the Last Supper, neatly tapping into centuries of Gnostic thought as a chorus of chirrupy, self-centred Apostles eagerly anticipate their canonisation behind him.
There’s a solid supporting cast: Anoushka Lucas as a dainty Mary Magdalene, David Thaxton as a resplendently gothic Pilate, Peter Caulfield as a gloriously camp Herod, Cavin Cornwall as an impressively impassive Caiaphas and Sean Kingsley, sounding a lot like Michael Bolton, as Annas. But the real credit should go to miracle-worker Sheader and his designer Tom Scutt, who retrieved this classic from the depths of the 2012 arena tour starring Chris Moyles (!) like Jesus raising Lazarus.
They have opted for a gritty, urban Jerusalem. The ensemble, clad in distressed, grey tank-tops and skinny trackies, dance furiously throughout upon Scutt’s looming, smoke-filled mess of rusty iron girders and fallen crosses. And in the second-half, as events march towards their Golgotha apogee, there are some breath-taking visuals. The moneylenders are taught a lesson in a fiery, frenzied rendition of ‘The Temple’. Judas’ suicide is memorably symbolised by the mic drop of all mic drops. And Christ is flogged at the column with blazing bursts of glitter, as Huntley’s now silver-handed sinner provides the evening’s highlight with a scouring, riveting ‘Superstar’.
And the reviewer recognised that this was as vibrant and potent a production of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical as was possible. And the reviewer realised with horror that he had enjoyed it. And, like Peter after the cock crowed, he wept bitterly.
Jesus Christ Superstar is on until 27th August 2016. Click here for more details.