At the end of last year, I made a commitment to myself to make more of a conscious effort to see new shows. My theatre going staples and regulars will always have a place in my diary and my heart, and still have a ways to go in terms of seeing more new things, but I think my eyes are more gradually opening up to the world of theatre that is so rich and vibrant beyond the familiar sights of Shaftesbury Avenue. One of my favourite theatrical experiences to date was my first trip to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre last summer seeing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers starring Alex Gaumond and Laura Pitt – Pulford; I was astounded by the space and how it could be used, challenging all my ideas and preconceptions about how shows can be staged, and what’s possible within that. Not to mention there’s just a special kind of magic and atmosphere around seeing a show outside, assuming the weather stays dry!
That in mind, when Regent’s Park announced their musical for the new season was Jesus Christ Superstar, in keeping with my resolution, I took a punt and decided to get tickets. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera began life in 1970 as a concept album, before opening on Broadway in 1971, the West End in 1972 and numerous productions since over the years. The story is loosely based on the gospel’s accounts of the final week of the life of Jesus Christ. I was totally unfamiliar with the majority of the score before I went in, and think Tom Deering has worked wonders with his arrangements; from the opening riff until the final notes I was enthralled at how he has breathed new life into a 45 year old score that I now have become a little bit obsessed by… there’s riffs and awesome harmonies all over the place, but also moments of raw tenderness where he has allowed the voices to shine, and that combination is truly magical. I have never experienced a score where it took all my resolve to sit still during the uptempo numbers, a foot or a shoulder or my head was always moving because I was so into what I was hearing. By that same token, his arrangements of the ballads and slower numbers sent shivers down my spine.
Director Timothy Sheader’s style is raw, visceral and relentless; he has a real gift for distinct memorable imagery, especially in the lead up to the Crucifixion, and each scene is attacked by his cast with boundless enthusiasm and energy. Choreography by Drew McOnie is riveting and one of my favourite things onstage, moving from righteous zeal to an almost hypnotic quality as they morph into the mob that bays to Pilate for Jesus to be crucified. Thanks to Tom Scutt’s striking design, the ensemble rock out beneath coloured dust, gold glitter, flares and flames, all of which bear a wonderful striking contrast to the mostly muted greys of the costumes of Jesus and his disciples. The crown jewels in the costume department, for me, are Peter Caufield’s King Herod, who strides onto the stage in a flowing gold cape, and David’s Thaxton’s Pilate, who looks like he’s fresh out of a rock concert, eyeliner standing out like warpaint. The set is also hauntingly skeletal, featuring a cruciform walkway and steel frames, its rugged simplicity again allowing the actors to shine and really make them the focus. Initially I found the hand held microphones a little distracting, but soon I forgot they were there, and thought they were a neat nod to the show’s origins.
The ensemble in this show and cast in general are one of the strongest and most delightful. I have witnessed recently, not a weak link among them! Declan Bennett, who I haven’t had the honour of seeing since his Once days, brings a raw, rugged, earthy kind of charm to Jesus that I found utterly captivating. As act one moves apace, he seems to grow in charisma and intensity, his vocal fitting Tom’s reimagining of the score like a glove. By the time we got to Gethsemane, the Act Two opener which opens simply with Declan and his guitar, and runs full pelt into a glorious, soul bearing anthem, I longed to get up out of my seat and cheer with wild abandon, and I had the feeling he had nothing left to give. Boy oh boy I was wrong: the Trial By Pilate and acceptance of his fate is harrowing and in an odd way, beautifully understated.
Declan’s Jesus was joined at this particular matinee by Joshua Dever as Judas, (usually played by Tyrone Huntley) in his very first show, at short notice and (he informed me afterwards) having only rehearsed the first act fully! From beginning to end, I was astounded by the depth he gave to the character, I felt every nuance of his pain and inner conflict, and he negotiates those powerhouse songs with ease and a likeable charm, even the cynical Superstar, having crowned Declan with his gold dusted thorns.
Singer songwriter Anoushka Lucas shines as Mary, having perhaps the most familiar songs (I Don’t Know How to Love Him and Could We Start Again Please?), her soulful voice adding a tender and endearing fragility to her portrayal.
David Thaxton, every inch a rockstar in his eyeliner and playing lead guitar in Pilate’s Dream, chews up the score and spits it out; I was floored by the intensity of his voice and how well it works with the score, having only seen him perform before in Only The Brave, a new musical which called for a markedly different style of character and singing.
Cavin Cornwall and Sean Kingsley also get to let their rock gods out to play as Caiaphas and Annas, Joel Harper Jackson brings an infectious kind of joy to Simon, and in all his golden glory, Peter Caulfield is a deliciously camp scene stealing Herod.
I’m consistently amazed by the ways in which musical theatre moves me and influences my life, and I felt that quality in spades here. I remember saying I felt changed, having witnessed such an incredible array of talent in terms of vocals and storytelling, and thank them most heartily for giving me a show that I have now fallen completely, utterly and wholeheartedly head over heels for. So much so, I spent Sunday enquiring about availability and had a return trip booked by Tuesday 😉