Review: Jesus Christ Superstar, Barbican

What strikes me halfway through the first act of Timothy Sheader’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, is what a truly bizarre subject this is to base a rock opera on. First performed on Broadway in 1971, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s controversial new show received mixed reviews. I myself am quite aggressively atheist, but I can still see why Christians, then or now, might not be overjoyed to be watching a re-enactment of Jesus’ crucifixion featuring much more glitter than I imagine is mentioned in the Bible. After winning the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2016, this production is back, this time hemmed in by the roof of the Barbican.

Tom Scutt’s set is an industrial hellscape, and perfectly complements the tone of the show. Crosses are made of iron and scaffolding, with one giant one laying fallen centre stage and used as a sort of runway for the performers. The border of the stage resembles a disused warehouse comprised of two concrete floors and is used to create a wall of sound when the ensemble is dispersed through it. While their voices are powerful and blend harmoniously, other aspects of the ensemble are questionable, like their athleisure inspired costumes. They look as though they’re dressed in Kanye West’s Yeezy line, draped in layers of grey cottons over sports bras and leggings. But hey, it matches Drew McOnie’s choreography, which is mostly tremendous as the group move and pulse around Jesus as one, like a wave, but occasionally tips into jazzercize territory with too many high kicks and too much repetition.

The performers are generally excellent, namely Matt Cardle (yes, The X Factor’s Matt Cardle) as Pilate, and Ricardo Afonso as Judas. Both have the perfect tone for rock and hit those heavy metal high notes with passionate ease. The same sadly can’t be said for Jesus (Robert Tripolino), whose tired voice seems to be stretched too far, but is pleasant when within a comfortable range. Sallay Garnett as Mary Magdalane is soulful and lilting, but her voice lacks the loftiness of her rockstar co-stars. Classic tunes from the show including ‘What’s The Buzz’ and ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ are satisfactory, but the first act is slightly confusing and quite choppy. Thankfully, things perk up in act two, and ‘Superstar’ followed by the crucifixion (using an electric drill), which while quite devastating, is visually and aurally spectacular – sorry, Jesus.

Lloyd Webber seems to be everywhere right now, what with Phantom still running (which I’d happily say goodbye to), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat currently playing at the Palladium, and Evita soon to be given a modern makeover at the hands of Jamie Lloyd. By the end of act two, I see why he’s a musical theatre giant, and why he and Rice turned the story of Jesus Christ into a rock opera: because, true or not, it’s a bloody good story. However, while the two key elements of the show are individually impressive, the music and lyrics, and the staging, the two don’t always mesh well. This stylish revamp of a musical theatre masterwork doesn’t quite match the classic, if occasionally clunky, lyrics.

Jesus Christ Superstar is playing the Barbican until 24 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Barbican website.