It’s the fear of an uprising, the quelling of a rebellion, and the torture and death of a messiah – with songs and dancing.
It’s the story of the dawn of Christianity and you will be engaged, entertained, and stunned by Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, currently at the Palace Theatre in Manchester.
In this production, the set design by Tom Scutt has a feel of an industrial wasteland made into a stage for a gig. Rusty iron girders comprise the scaffold while wires and boxes are exposed as if put together in haste. It matches the pace of the show, a sense of urgency and immediate reactions – a fire needs to be put out, and quick.
When it first opened in 2016 at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, this production provoked an overwhelming response. You can see why it has been revived. It has that sense of a dystopian gig, one that foreshadowed the pandemic when we got a sense of a more desolate world.
It’s clever, too. Because there are only glimpses of costume, it starts as if this is the final rehearsal. Rather like the original version, things are then beyond everyone’s control. It feels like when I first watched the film – that the representation becomes real and no one can go back. With the ensemble in lounge wear (or maybe rehearsal clothes), there’s a sense that this wasn’t meant to be the show, but it becomes the show. Perhaps the main act, Jesus, has been led by his ego, but he knows that he’s the sacrificial lamb and they don’t know it yet. I love the fact that microphones are intrinsic to the production, and that a dip in and out of the fourth wall reminds us that, in our world, this story keeps happening in different forms.
Meanwhile, the physical movements throughout feel more accessible than usual and give the impression that the ensemble is being pushed and dragged reluctantly. There’s also heavy symbolism in the design, including many stark images, as well as post-industrial and dystopian touches with nature trying to break through.
The cast is sublime. Ian Mcintosh as Jesus and Shem Omari James as Judas have such talent that you feel privileged to have watched them in these roles, while Hannah Richardson is the pitch-perfect Mary. Ryan O’Donnell as Pilate gives us a seasoned musician as though, in his tone and stature, he has known the business longer than Jesus. And the high priests – Jad Habchi as Caiaphas and Matt Bateman as Annas – are a highlight, almost as though Kiss or some German death metal outfit weren’t going to let some clean-cut singer songwriter mess up the gig. We loved them.
And then, of course, we have the sneering assassin: a gilded and be-pleated Herod played by Julian Clary. Splendidly flamboyant and cruel in his sparkly fronds, he is the walking. talking middle 8, giving us what we need at the perfect moment.
It’s all fun and games until someone gets crucified. And they do. So the message resonates now as much as it ever did, with the production leaving us with the feeling that this happened again. But why?
Photos by Paul Coltas including the main image: The company of the Jesus Christ Superstar Tour, Credit Paul Coltas
Jesus Christ Superstar is at the Palace Theatre in Manchester until September 23, 2023. For more information, click here.