Jesus Christ Superstar – Barbican, London

Lyrics: Tim Rice

Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber

Director: Timothy Sheader

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

It’s a great summer to be an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan with three notable revivals opening within a month of each other. In August, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre have Evitadirected, intriguingly, by Jamie Lloyd who will almost certainly bring the same vigour and innovation that he channelled into the superb Pinter at the Pinter season. This week there is fanfare at the London Palladium as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat returns with its 1991 leading man Jason Donovan now playing the Pharaoh, while the Barbican lends its stage to the production of Jesus Christ Superstarthat premiered in Regent’s Park several summers ago.

This is the “greatest story ever told,” intricately woven into our collective consciousness with a dedicated bank holiday weekend and the subject of countless biblical epic Hollywood films. Jesus of Nazareth is a prophet and miracle worker, beloved by the crowds who demand more and more of his time. Quickly the Roman authorities decide Jesus is a threat and set out to stop him, convincing his closest follower to betray him. Already resenting the burden of his fame and knowing an inevitable sacrifice lays ahead Jesus struggles to accept his fate.

The return of this much-garlanded production to the London stage is a delight and in the more intimate setting of the Barbican develops an intensity that gives further power to Timothy Sheader’s emotive production. Stripped of all the usual twee stage musical characteristics, Ed Bussey’s musical direction adds a harder edge to the sound, performed almost as a rock concert with a plot – stressing the show’s origins as a concept album. This approach frees-up the songs, creating a greater fluidity and allowing the score to feel as timeless as the story.

This dynamic, almost relentless freedom is similarly reflected in Drew Mconie’s choreography, drawing on hip hop and street dance to create powerful syncopated structures that radiate energy and purpose. For the 18 members of the Ensemble, this is a hardworking show and their seemingly tireless precision adds to the dramatic effect as they relay the changing state of the townsfolk, transforming from adoring groupies to baying mob within the space of a few songs.

The 50-minutes of Act One fly by but overamplification drowns out the lyrics and while you almost certainly know the story, this first section is not always as clear as it could be. But the much shorter second Act is extraordinarily affecting as Jesus the man comes more sharply into view. Sheader’s direction is superb here, with a driving inevitability that is unyielding in its intensity. We see all too clearly how events move quickly beyond control in a frenetic series of scenes, but amidst the chaos Sheader allows the tender moments to hit hard, building into a genuinely moving human tragedy.

Robert Tripolino is a quiet and reserved Jesus in Act One, clearly finding the demands of fame a little overwhelming and enjoying his quiet time with Mary Magdalen but he’s very much in the background for a long time. But in Act Two Tripolino is outstanding; this is not a Jesus placidly resigned to God’s will, but a raging, frightened and all too human character broken by the betrayal of his friends. When Tripolino sings ‘Gesthsemane’ he holds the audience in thrall and by the crucifixion your heart is breaking not for a symbol but for a man in agony for a reason he cannot comprehend. It’s a thrilling performance.

Ricardo Afonso’s rock vocals as Judas are equally impressive and he uses the force of the music to unpack the soul of a character troubled by the direction of his friend and then tortured by his preventative actions. With silver stained hands in Act Two the eternal blame for Jesus’ death pales in comparison with the guilt and interior suffering that Afonso produces in a fervent performance.

Whatever your faith and even if you have none at all the power of the cross is hugely resonant and Tom Scutt’s industrial scaffold design incorporates the symbol throughout the show, not least in the main walkway. But it is the closing moments that will stay with you, lit from behind with body in shadow, the hauntingly familiar image of a man on a cross. After all the frenetic drama this moment of stillness and barbarism is incredibly moving and full of humanity.

Runs until: 24 August 2019 | Image: Johann Persson

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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