Saturday 23 July 2016

Jesus Christ Superstar - Review

Open Air Theatre, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Timothy Sheader

Tyrone Huntley and Declan Bennett

In what is unquestionably a Superstar for the 21st century Timothy Sheader's Jesus is no long haired prophet. In an electrifying performance that captures both Christ’s charisma and his flawed vulnerability, Declan Bennett's Messiah is a powerfully charged hipster. Played out against Tom Scutt's rusted-steel framed set (that interestingly evokes the Angel Of The North in its unpretentious simplicity) and with hand held mics throughout, this production places the emphasis as much upon Andrew Lloyd-Webber's rock-driven score, as it does upon its sensational cast.

Bennett brings an energy to the title role that is moving and credible. Vocally he is perfect and as act one sees a momentum gather, it is in the second half with his remarkable Gethsemane (opened beautifully by Bennett himself on acoustic guitar) that the actor soars. His performance is as harrowing to watch as it is probably exhausting to perform. We flinch at the Trial By Pilate / 39 Lashes and during his crucifixion, the extent to which Bennett subtly underplays his agony makes it all the tougher for the audience to watch - and all this alongside Scutt's ingenious interpretation of Calvary, itself a scenic triumph that must surely rank amongst the capital's finest this year.

Next to Bennett, Tyrone Huntley's Judas is sensational. His opening take on Heaven On Their Minds displays an intelligence and energy that has been carefully honed during his already impressive career. Gifted several stunning solos, he closes the first half with Blood Money and a neat theatrical take on the "pieces of silver" that won't be revealed here. Throughout, Huntley offers a clever interpretation of the complex dissolution of his friendship with Jesus. When the Oliviers are being handed out this year, both Bennett and Huntley deserve to be on the list.

There is imaginative excellence across the company. With both Everything's Alright and I Don't Know How To Love Him, Anouska Lucas's Mary is a thing of beauty, the actress highlighting not just Mary's damaged frailty, but also the inexplicably wondrous love that she feels towards Jesus. David Thaxton's Pilate is another treat and as he sings Pilate's Dream, leading on electric guitar, the background acoustic work of Bennett and Joel Harper-Jackson (who plays Simon Zealotes) offers another layer to the song's troubling spirituality. Peter Caulfield's Herod, truly as camp as Christmas, is a blast, (and wonderfully costumed too), whilst Cavin Cornwall's imposing Caiaphas offers a baritone that has to be heard to be believed.

Shearer has surrounded himself with a top-notch creative team. Under Tom Deering's direction Lloyd Webber's score thrills, with the show evolving into a celebration of the guitar in the modern musical, as much as a biblical interpretation. Drew McOnie's choreography makes fine use of the ensemble and the multi-level space with his movement evoking not just a seething biblical crowd but also the febrile tensions of the times. 

Lee Curran's lighting adds dimension too. The rock-concert style of the evening piece lends itself to smoke - and as the park’s daylight finally succumbs to night over the crucifixion, so to like Longinus' spear, do Curran's shafts of light pierce the darkness.

This is beautiful brilliant theatre. Don't miss it.

Runs until 27th August
Photo credit Johan Perssonn

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