If I live long enough to get dementia, I sometimes wonder if the last twenty nine words rattling around my brain will be the colours of Joseph’s technicolor dreamcoat. But seeing Laurence Connor’s production last night made me question what I thought I knew (ahh-ahh).
I don’t remember what made me first fall in love with the arrogant boy with the coloured coat, but I grew up watching the 1999 film endlessly. Starring Donny Osmond, it is audacious and stylish and completely bonkers. I love the way the narrator opens the school hall doors in assembly and smoke pours through as Osmond first enters. I love how the kids gather with candles as he sings Close Every Door To Me. I love how hokey and plastic and up-for-it it is. It finds a way to take the silliness seriously. Seeing Joseph again live, I was ready to relive all the emotions stitched into those twenty nine colours.
Every time we saw the show, grandma would lean in and whisper, “are you ready?” She convinced me that one of the cast might be ill and they’d need someone to step in as a last minute understudy. I knew all the words, all the colours, all the songs. I was always ready. She said it to me before my visit to the Palladium too, and even though I was excited by the prospect of seeing Sheridan Smith as The Narrator, a little part of me was prepared to leap up on stage if need be.
Clearly this production could do with an extra few pairs of hands because Smith has to carry the whole show. She plays not only the omniscient Narrator but Joseph’s father Jacob, evil Mrs Potiphar and Joseph’s fellow inmate in prison. In a sparkly jacket, trackies and trainers, she belts about the stage, joining in dance routines and in-jokes, and is a constant cheerleader for Jac Yarrow’s Joseph, even when, as Mrs Potiphar, she’s trying to seduce him. She’s charming and funny but completely out of place.
The show’s fatal flaw, which Smith has to lead, is the attempt to make it cool. From the insertion of a hip-hop dance section into “Go Go Go Joseph” to Smith’s rapper-inspired moves, you get the feeling that in production meetings they used the word “urban”, or someone brought up a clip of Rudi and Smithy rapping American Boy and said yes, that’s what we want.
When there’s a dramatic moment, Smith literally whispers “dramatic moment” and cracks a grin. It’s as if the director doesn’t trust that the play is good enough to take it seriously, so he decides to declare that they’re laughing at the absurdity of having to do this silly silver old fashioned thing. Fresh faced Jac Yarrow, who is just the kind of pretty drama school boy who would charm your parents and has a rich voice you’d trust to belt the high notes in karaoke, seems to be the only one taking it seriously.
The big draw on all the posters is the reappearance of former Joseph, Jason Donovan, now playing Pharoah, who gets a riotous cheer as if his gold-plated dad bod is some kind of sex god. Ignore his dodgy accent and he’s absolutely fine as the entertaining Elvis-like King. But at one point he recounts his dream for Joseph and a chorus of young women collapse around his throne. He leans over to one and taps her nose to get her attention. She gives him a sideways glance and he gestures “call me” with the splayed fingers of a phone. If this is a piece of direction, it is severely misguided. But it feels like an ad-lib, a kind of off-hand power play. It feels gross. She smiles awkwardly as if to say “you’re hitting on me while I’m on stage half naked in front of thousands of people on press night?” and breaks eye contact. If it is an ad-lib, he’s probably being paid too much to be told off for that later.
If you float along on the warmth between Smith and Yarrow, or if you fancy Donovan, you’ll have a lovely time. And maybe it’s pointless to pick apart a show that was written half a century ago, but if it’s going to be given millions of pounds and put on in theatres in the heart of London time and again, it deserves to be rigorously examined. And while I get that Lloyd-Webber and Rice were young men stretching their musical-writing limbs and playing with genre and style, etc etc, I just can’t be bothered to find an excuse for continuing to perform Benjamin Calypso, written to be performed in Caribbean accents by a primarily white cast, using stereotypes about bananas that you wouldn’t get away with if you wrote them today. The women get a crap deal too. Aside from Smith, who is rarely off-stage, they’re used to sexually exoticise and “other” the population of the Middle East (and in the East); skinny semi-naked accessories glittering about and fawning over Donovan. These dodgy parts may be written into the original structure, but it’s not rocket science to make updates.
Despite the budget, there’s little spectacle here. The coat with golden lining (ahh-ahh) looks like it was picked up in a charity shop. One of the tacky animatronic sphinx statues breaks down, perhaps deciding it’s not worth the effort. And no offence but Joseph’s gold chariot just looks like an enlarged Kinder Surprise toy. If there’s little emotion, surely they need to make up for it with visual splendour?
Now I can’t remember if the show is so much better than this, and whether it’s the production that lets it down, or if I’ve overly romanticised it in my head. The cast try hard, but the jokey, piss-take structure they’ve been given to play in is all wrong. If you’re making a West End musical, you can’t pretend to be too cool for it; it is inherently uncool. Give us cheese. Give us emotion. Give us more.
In the meantime, if anyone in the show does trip over, gets a sore throat or is accidentally suffocated by one of the sphinx statues falling on top of them, I’m very much available.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is on at London Palladium until 8th September. More tickets and info here.