It wasn’t the pandemic that scuppered my first effort to see this revival of Timothy Sheader’s award-winning production, but the British weather. A word about that trip, though, since the atmosphere was wonderful, even if torrential rain brought an early end to the evening. It just wouldn’t be summer without a trip to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and the weather was a comforting touch of normality.
More importantly, front-of-house staff get the first cheer here: kitted out in PPE, but always smizing, they were welcoming and excited, even while wearing a visor and taking a temperature. Getting back to the theatre is the important thing. And, even with the show’s billing as a concert, the chance to hear Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece is welcome – for Tim Rice’s excellent lyrics as much as the score. But that ‘concert’ description is modest. True, there’s no set for the show. And performers are careful to socially distance. But the idea of a fresh look at the Gospel story is present and powerful. And the manner in which current constraints have been used by Sheader, his cast and his choreographer Drew McOnie is brilliant. The production is far from a reduced experience.
From the moment when performers simultaneously take off face masks (to a cheer), the show is gripping. The use of microphones and cables as props, albeit an invention born from social distancing necessity, is effective. And McOnie’s work really comes into focus. Isolated movements, reflecting the emotions of whoever is singing, don’t just feel appropriate to our times – with the space around each performer, intensity is increased. There feels like more to look at and more appreciate than ever.
Jesus Christ Superstar focuses on characters’ immediate, personal relations to the story (including speculation as to Christ’s frame of mind with the marvellous number Gethsemane). This makes the acting in the roles – and Sheader’s direction of them – key. Declan Bennett’s Jesus is mercurial and complex, full of humanity, with a unique charisma. As all know, the show belongs to Judas, and a surprisingly sweet-sounding Ricardo Afonso explores circumstance and motivation in dynamic fashion. Current reviews already testify to the achievements of the cast. Their performances are a further aspect of the show that even the most simple of staging enhances rather than detracts from.
Declan Bennett is the star attraction for this new musical, a clever riff on Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Match Girl. Joined by Bronté Barbé, both performers sound great and recap the original tale, which Bennett’s character reads and Barbé acts out, alongside an update that involves a sales girl for lightbulbs aimed at sufferers of Season Affective Disorder. The show is cute, charming, and uses its fairy tale antecedents wisely.
The piece comes from musical theatre team Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda with expert help on the book and lyrics from Rachel Sheinkin. The structure is tight and the words very good: clear and direct with smart plays on rhythm. When it comes to the modern melancholy, as the countdown for New Year approaches, the team does well. Attempts at humour don’t quite land, which is a shame given the wit and intelligence behind the show. The music is proficient and enjoyable if, I fear, not quite memorable enough.
At just over an hour, Striking 12 feels truncated. Bennett’s mopish character could easily be given more backstory. And the modern-day girlhe meets urgently needs one. Transforming Andersen into a romance needs more work. But the production skilfully glosses over shortcomings. Kate Robson-Stuart and Leon Scott have a good go at a variety of roles alongside sitting at the drums and taking up the violin. Danielle Kassaraté makes an amiable, if underused, narrator. Oliver Kaderbhai, who is choreographer (with Marah Stafford) as well as director, has plenty of ideas – like the piece itself -and the whole show faces the perils of striking a match on stage bravely. There are plenty of warm glowing moments that make Striking 12 sparky, if not with quite enough material to get a goodfire going.
Four decades is a long time in sexual politics, but it makes this revival of Manuel Puig’s story all the more interesting. There’s no shortage of clichés about gay life surrounding the imprisoned Molina, some of which might make you feel uncomfortable. But, as the relationship with his cell mate Valentin develops into something ‘beyond’ masculine and feminine, we see more clearly now than ever the original intention that Molina is a transgendered character. Missing the opportunity to cast a performer who identifies as such in the role is a debate I leave to others better qualified to discuss. But this timely new version, by José Rivera and Allan Baker, provides the kind of detailed depiction of human sexuality many crave to see on stage.
Jon Bausor’s ambitious design visualises Molina’s fantasy life. As he passes the time recounting and embellishing old movie plots, there are projections on to prison corridors and sound effects. The space surrounding the couple’s cell come into use: as love blossoms, the men start to venture outside, each step they take dramatically thrilling, leading to a magically poignant finale of escape through death. Sorry for the plot spoiler, but it would be surprising if anyone thought the play, set in a police state and full of torture, would end happily. The important point is a victory, of sorts, with both men’s spirits unconquered.
The show is a triumph for its stars, on stage without a break for just shy of two hours. Declan Bennett, well known as a musical theatre performer, shows his strength an actor playing Valentin. He’s a political prisoner and, while this element of the plot, and the tension surrounding it, is downplayed, Bennett convinces as a man of powerful integrity and intelligence. Samuel Barnett takes the role of Molina. He may ham up the more theatrical moments a touch, but he is never less than magnetic. Molina bargains with his captors, acting as a double agent, and there could be the suggestion of more complex motivations on his part. But the strategy is to present Molina wholly sympathetically and, pursuing this, Barnett secures affection for his character, making the show deeply moving.
Until 5 May 2018 www.menierchocolatefactory.com
Photo by Tristram Kenton
Artistic Director Timothy Sheader scores tops marks yet again for his venue’s annual musical. Sheader has wowed with grown-up and demanding shows before, but in this production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s concept album/rock opera even the glitter is gritty. This abbreviated Passion of Christ could win converts with its charged staging of ‘The Flagellation’ alone.
Updates to the music are respectful, coming mostly from the vocals. The score feels fresh and the rock guitars aren’t just retained, they are revelled in. More startlingly contemporary is choreographer Drew McOnie’s work and the athleisure clothes from designer Tom Scutt. Jesus and the apostles aren’t hippies but hipsters. It makes sense. Flares, glitter, a glam-Rocky-Horror outfit for Peter Caulfield’s excellent Herod and Judas’ hands dripping in silver paint, show carefully colour-coded scenes. All aided by Lee Curran, whose lighting for the finale is breath taking.
Sheader emphasises community (those ‘Shoreditch’ touches have a point). This is a big cast and it encircles the auditorium before mounting the stage, grabbing microphones and playing around with the stands, cultivating the idea this being a concert. The performative angle provides insight into the piece. And such a commanding use of the ensemble adds emotion as those who followed Jesus quickly turn, to hound him, then demand his death.
There are as many superstars on stage as you could pray for. Anoushka Lucas is an excellent Mary, making the most of her show-stopping number. Tyrone Huntley (above) is a faultless Judas, with a soaring range and tremendous power. As the lead, Declan Bennett may strike you as lacking charisma – his Christ is introspective – but when power is called for Bennett delivers and his acting is astonishingly focused. Moments when it is difficult to hear what Bennett is singing are an especial pity, given that these are Tim Rice’s best lyrics. It’s testament to the strength of the production that a normally fatal flaw does little to diminish the power of this revelatory show.
Until 27 August 2016 www.openairtheatre.com
Photos by Johan Persson
Arriving from America with eight Tony Awards to boast about, the new musical, Once, which opened this week at the Phoenix Theatre, is a fantastic show, impressive in its simplicity. This love story is a world away from the brummagem you often see in the West End. This is genuine, heartfelt stuff – and refreshing for being so.
The guy and girl are a Dublin busker and a Czech immigrant, played by talented duo Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitešić. They fall in love because of a shared passion for music. This is a modern affair with complications that make them chaste; their brief encounter is more about creativity than carnality, as she inspires him with the confidence to pursue his musical career.
Based on the 2006 film of the same name, spruced up with poetic moments from writer Enda Walsh, Once started out at the New York Theatre Workshop before its transfer to Broadway. It’s easy to fantasise how wonderful it would be in a small venue. But the atmospheric design by Bob Crowley, recreating an Irish pub where all the action takes place, is wonderfully intimate. The bar can be visited by the audience, and the actor-musicians, who perform marvellously, never leave the set.
Most of the songs, including the Oscar-winning ‘Falling Slowly’, are marvelled at as they are performed: by the girl when she first hears them, a sympathetic bank manager approached for a loan (Jez Unwin providing some much needed comic relief) and the studio manager as the band make their demo tape. It’s key to the piece’s charm – the invitation to revel in creativity. Behind this is the beautiful score written by Glen Hansard and Markèta Irglovà. A mix of folk-inspired tunes, performed with a raw energy that is infectious. Instantly appealing, and with the potential to grow on you – these are songs you will want to hear more than once.
Until 4 July 2014 oncemusical.co.uk
Photo by Manuel Harlan
Written 12 April 2013 for The London Magazine