Lyrics: Tim Rice
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Director: Bill Kenwright
Reviewer: Edie Ranvier
It’s hard to go wrong with a bit of “Joseph”. It’s coming up for fifty years since the musical, inspired by the biblical tale of Joseph and his brothers and penned by the unsurpassable double-act of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, opened for its professional premiere at the Edinburgh Festival. Now it’s back in the capital, under the direction of Bill Kenwright, and as colourful and sing-able as ever.
Jaymi Hensley, formerly of Union J, headlines as Joseph and seems none the worse for his band’s split earlier this year. He has a great voice, showcased in lollipops like Any Dream Will Do and Close Every Door To Me, and good stage presence, and he seems to be enjoying himself – though from boyband to 70s Old Testament-inspired musical must feel like quite a switchover. Trina Hill as the Narrator brings a good vocal range and powerful lungs to her commentary on his adventures.
The flaw in both their performances is a tendency to over-act. Joseph is an early Lloyd Webber-Rice collaboration, full of infectious tunes but just as distinctive for the wit and zest of Tim Rice’s lyrics. And the DNA of the humour is its understatement: even in its most heartfelt scenes, this isn’t a musical that takes itself at all seriously. So the souped-up, slowed-down score, the extra trills, and in particular the annoying habit that this production develops of reducing the tempo to near-standstill every time a joke needs emphasis or there’s a moment of pathos – all weigh down the lightness of touch that makes the original such a joy.
Fortunately, the smaller parts don’t seem to feel the hand of musical history pressing so heavily on their shoulders, and, Joseph’s rainbow robes notwithstanding, it’s the cameos that bring the real colour to the production. Alex Hetherington puts in a sympathetic performance as Benjamin, the youngest brother, conscience-stricken over the treatment of Joseph and then in the firing line as his disguised brother gets his own back. Lewis Asquith takes time off from playing Simeon to appear as the butler whom Joseph meets in prison, where he’s understatedly funny with just a shade of Jacob Rees-Mogg. And Joshua Robinson as Zebulan makes the second half as he leads the brothers in a jaunty Benjamin Calypso. True, there’s something slightly uncomfortable about the only black man in the cast getting the Caribbean-inspired solo for his moment in the spotlight. He does do it well, though.
Best of all are the handmaidens, Amber Kennedy – who also doubles as a high-kicking Potiphar’s wife – Eve Norris and Gemma Pipe. They light up the choreography every time they’re onstage, whether they’re playing cheerleaders, camels or Canaanite wives: it’s just a pity there are only three of them. More of this, please.
The children’s choir, from the local ESM’s Junior School, are tuneful and professional, and watching the proud grans in the audience on opening night, swaying, singing along and waving at the kids in what they clearly think is a surreptitious fashion, is almost as much fun as watching the show itself.
It’s not the best production you’ll ever see; but plenty of the colour and good humour of the original make it through the superadded sentimentality, and make for a feel-good night out.
Runs until 23 March 2019 | Image: Pamela Raith