Lyrics: Tim Rice
Music: Andrew Lloyd-Webber
Director: Timothy Sheader
Jesus Christ Superstar caused quite a stir when first performed with some religious groups taking exception at its depiction of Christ as ‘just a man’ and its sympathetic portrayal of Judas. Nevertheless, it was to run for eight years in the West End and be revived multiple times. This production originated in 2016, celebrating 45 years of the show.
The storyline follows the last week of Jesus’ life as warring political factions seek to be rid of him as his popularity grows. Judas is becoming ever more disillusioned and wrestles with his conscience before giving Jesus up to the authorities. Jesus himself is becoming wracked with doubt: as the death he has expected draws near, he fears he will have no legacy.
Let there be no doubt – this is a new and bold reimagining of the show. Director Timothy Sheader and choreographer Drew McOnie have worked together to create a spectacle for the eyes and ears, heavy with symbolism. The set from designer Tom Scutt is minimalistic and industrial. The stage is dominated by a huge cross laid on the floor which is used by the cast to add height as needed. There’s plenty of haze used and Lee Curran’s lighting design means that characters seem to emerge from darkness into light.
What is immediately striking is McOnie’s muscular and contemporary choreography, the ensemble writhing and moving like a single, sometimes robotic organism. It varies to suit the mood, so the backing singers’ movements during I Don’t Know How to Love Him are more sinuous, for example. This makes for a visually striking piece that sticks in the mind. And what of the score, that started the whole as a concept album? It still sounds totally fresh, with Lloyd Webber and Rice serving up showstopper after showstopper, from I Don’t Know How to Love Him onwards, subtly manipulating our emotions as they go, supported by McOnie’s angular shapes.
The interplay between Judas, the authorities and Jesus plays out effectively as we get to understand their motivations. Ian McIntosh (Jesus) and Shem Omari Jones (Judas) show their inner turmoil well, alternating between raw emotion and periods of introspection, with voices that soar and shriek; while Jad Habchi’s bass as Caiaphas cuts under the whole with menace. Hannah Richardson brings sweetness to the role of Mary Magdalene as she tries to keep Jesus calm. The whole could be emotionally draining, but opportunities are taken for some light relief: Timo Tatzber’s gloriously camp Herod is a joy to watch as he prances around the stage, unsure what to do with Jesus and his followers before sending him back to Jerusalem and Pilate.
While the show is awash with symbolism, some seems a touch heavy-handed at times – the effect on Judas’ hands when he accepts the authorities’ silver, for example, but this is a minor flaw in what is a melodramatic, stirring yet thoughtful feast from the opening mournful guitar in the overture to the almost silent crucifixion scene. It’s an adrenaline rush from start to finish – catch it while you can.
Runs until 18 November 2023 and on tour