Review: Jesus Christ Superstar, The Open Air Theatre

Celebrating its forty-fifth anniversary, Jesus Christ Superstar protests once again, as Timothy Sheader adds modern spice to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock phenomenon with not just heaven on their minds. This time at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in a production that looks back to its original controversy, the rock musical is propelled right ahead into the celebrity worship and performativity of our time. It’s got a satirical bite and just the right mixture of outrageous fun and clear critique of mob-mentality which still says an awful lot today.

Jesus Christ Superstar reflected the youth culture at the time of its first performance so it’s only right it gets shaken up into an update that tastes like an urban youth-rebellion with a touch of post-apocalyptic world order. In modern clothes with a sense of dusted colour-coding, Jesus’ followers are on one hand the youth that goes against austerity and oppression, on the other the soul-searching cult that gets out of control. Declan Bennett’s introverted and soulful Jesus does in fact seem disappointed with his gang, and as his soft vocals gradually intensify, it becomes very clear that the beast we are dealing with is fanaticism itself – how intense celebrity worship can lead a crowd to extremities.

In fact the production as a whole seems to note on this phenomenon – how an intense obsession with an individual is often formed for the wrong reasons. As with musicians today the crowd worships Jesus as a superstar, the one individual that’s beyond themselves; their saviour. As with a mob destroying a celebrity by invading their privacy, the fanatic worship of Jesus eventually leads to his downfall. After all, at least in this musical, he is only a man. Bennett’s depiction of Jesus is just that. He sings with a subtle passion, and though it’s almost too introverted in the beginning with a singer-songwriter-flavour, his despair in the second half hits home like a shockwave. He is joined by the incredible Tyrone Huntley whose Judas soars with heart-hitting intensity and a voice that will make you melt in your seat. Anoushka Lucas is soulful as Mary, with David Thaxton’s Pilate as an edgy treat. Comedy gold is Cavin Cornwall’s Caiaphas and Sean Kingsley’s Annas, and as a last sprinkle in this wonderful world of dark despair and performativity, Peter Caulfield arrives as a camp, sinister and drunk Herod in what can only be a golden leftover of an Alexander McQueen gown.

What is so wonderful about this show is that it goes all in and makes bold choices. The handheld microphones throughout highlight the musical’s past as a concert is perhaps slightly alienating but it sends a strong message and as Judas hangs himself from a cord and Jesus is crucified on a mic stand, it’s very clear this production has a lot to say. Tom Scutt’s design is imaginative and coupled with Drew McOnie’s thrilling choreography and Sheader’s intelligent direction, this is a revival you cannot miss.

 

Jesus Christ Superstar is playing at Open Air Theatre until 27 August. For more information and tickets, see the Open Air Theatre website.

Photo: Johan Persson