Holly Lucas, Contributing Critic - United Kingdom
Coming into the auditorium not knowing what to expect from this latest revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice classic, it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I took my seat in the front row of The Barbican Theatre. I certainly wouldn’t claim to know Jesus Christ Superstar very well, if at all to be honest. The only version I had seen was the John Legend Live in Concert version back in 2018 and even then I was busy doing other things so didn’t pay a whole lot of attention. Needless to say, it’s not my favourite, but I was looking forward to sitting down and actually paying attention this time, particularly as I’d come with a Superstar fanatic who knew the show inside out. So it’s only fair I share both mine and his opinions of the show; a novice and an expert. If you don’t want any spoilers, click away now!
For those who don’t know the show, it’s set during the last week of Jesus’ life leading up to his crucifixion after he’s betrayed by Judas - a time of heightened emotion you can imagine - but written as a rock concert.
Visually it was stunning. The set design by Tom Scutt was very clever, combined with the lighting design by Lee Curran which created some wonderful silhouettes and shadows, adding a moody and grungy feel to the towering ruin wrapped in trees that swamped the stage, reminding us of this production’s original home, the Regents Park Open Air Theatre. It did a fine job of housing the band (who had a standing ovation of their own) with every inch of it used by the cast. The levels created really added a depth that enhanced the performance, with the audience not knowing where to look sometimes with so much to see. Symbolic crosses were found every which way, from a ginormous moving platform to cleverly directed uses of mic stands and wires. There was some great imagery throughout, but particularly in Act 2 during the Last Supper - clever ideas that got a good audience reaction.
There was an awful lot of complex and energetic choreography throughout (with Drew McOnie taking the helm). Right from ‘Heaven on their Minds’ we were blasted with great little motifs as the performers entered, and it didn’t really let up at all. Sometimes I found it quite distracting from the action and the songs that were taking place, possibly because I was so close to the stage so couldn’t get an overall view, but sometimes I felt the dancing wasn’t necessary at that point in time. I was really trying hard to listen to the lyrics as my Superstar accomplice informed me they’re very clever, but I got so distracted by some of the dancing I missed a lot of bits and needed things explained afterwards.
Where I thought sometimes the choreography wasn’t needed, other times it was cleverly intertwined. Herod’s Song was quite the spectacle, and they really tied it in with the costume design. I do wonder though why all the cast were wearing trainers but Jesus was in sandals?
Being so close did make it feel like I was really in the action, with performers hanging off the stage, glitter thrown at our feet during the lashings (an interesting choice but I think one of my favourite sequences) and I could actually hear the voices of the ensemble which I really appreciate - sometimes it’s nice to hear the raw sound instead of through a microphone (Melanie Bright on stage right - beautiful!)
Vocally this cast are amazing. Ricardo Afonso as Judas has the perfect rock tone for that part and from his opening number I had chills just from his voice. Robert Tripolino as Jesus I wanted to like, I really did, but it took me a while to warm to the boyband vibe and it was only when he sang Gethsemane that I changed my mind.
Until that point, it was like we had been floating along in something that didn’t know whether it was a musical or a concert - it was really frustrating! For a story that has such turmoil and anguish, I didn’t see that from the actors until Gethsemane when Tripolino launched the mic stand across the stage. It’s like the entire cast were waiting for that moment before they could let go. In the interval, it was explained to me that at the beginning of the show Judas is in real mental turmoil because he sees things aren’t quite what they appear and doesn’t see any way out but to betray Jesus and hand him over to Caiaphus (Cavin Cornwall - a strong, clear bass if ever I heard one). I didn’t see that. I didn’t see the connection between Judas and Jesus at the start. The acting was too internal and as a newbie to the show I needed to see it.
I also think part of the problem is that whilst they were all wearing mics, they were also using handheld mics, passing them between each other and fiddling with mic stands through the whole show. Occasional microphone issues reared their heads, various times they were dropped on the floor - I’m sure the sound team were squirming but the performers didn’t flinch which was great, but I wish there were no handhelds to be honest. I found them an odd choice and they seemed to hinder the performers from acting fully and connecting with each other. They were solo artists all singing their bit before passing the microphone on to the next performer.
I found a similar thing with Sallay Garnett as Mary as I had with Tripolino. At first I wasn’t sure but really warmed to her and her soulful vocal tones when she got into ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’. Again, it was sung using a handheld mic on a mic stand and I didn’t really feel any connection to the story of how Mary was feeling at that time, trying to love a man who has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The one person who I was surprised by was Matt Cardle as Pilate. I remember watching him win the X Factor all those years ago and I’m not sure I’ve seen anything he’s done since, but he was brilliant in this small part. He can sing, we know that, but he acted that part and really connected with Jesus, begging him to fight back and say something to defend himself before he’s killed. At the front of the stage knelt on the floor pulling Jesus into him, I felt like I was intruding on a really intimate moment - that’s what I wanted in the whole show!
As someone who doesn’t know the show at all, I can’t really say I know it any better now. I only knew the odd melody before and I really think knowing the lyrics in depth would have helped me to connect with the characters. This is a version of the show that’s for people who know the show well. There were some people in the audience who were singing along to every word and looked like they were loving life, but I would strongly recommend listening to a cast recording before going to see this production.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs at The Barbican Theatre until 24th August.