It isn’t quite the second coming, but if you’re not already a disciple of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic rock musical, then Timothy Sheader’s production – the first to be staged al fresco in the U.K. – might just convert you. The show famously began life as a concept album in 1970, before going on to be performed in concert versions and arriving on Broadway the following year. You might argue that it never properly made the transition to fully fledged theatre. There’s little in the way of plot or character, and dramatic shape and tension are pretty much non-existent until crucifixion looms. But we all know those songs – the screaming power of "Gethsemane," the folksy lilt of "I Don’t Know How to Love Him," the jittery, snarling "Heaven on Their Minds." And Rice’s lyrics, if sometimes toe-curlingly dated, are punchy and direct.
Declan Bennett’s Jesus is a bearded, guitar-playing hipster, and Tom Scutt’s design of rusty steel, with its mic stands, cruciform walkway and gig-like atmosphere, gives him a stadium-style stage from which to preach his message like a 21st-century rock star. His devotees sway and swoon, while Tyrone Huntley’s sensational Judas voices his doubts with a thrillingly intense blend of anger, dread, pain and frustration. Bennett’s performance comes into its own with an anguished "Gethsemane" and his dignity in the face of violence and humiliation in the later scenes. But Huntley’s grips from the outset, his voice an instrument of exhilarating versatility, from rock-howling to R&B and a sweetly divine falsetto. And he delivers an emotional gut-punch with Judas’ suicide, symbolised by the dropping of his microphone from an upper level, leaving it swinging, noose-like. There’s appeal, too, to Anoushka Lucas’ delicately drawn Mary Magdalene, who sings with a lovely, unforced purity.
Cavin Cornwall has a fine bass voice as Caiaphas, but it’s a mistake to paint him and his cohorts as a bunch of swinging comedy villains, grooving and growling, given the role they play in Jesus’ fate. David Thaxton, on the other hand, brings a gravitas to Pilate that transcends his faintly glam get-up of big boots and black eye makeup. Peter Caulfield’s Herod, meanwhile, is a creature of grand camp excess, in a voluminous cape of shimmering golden pleats and headdress. He’s an Art Nouveau nightmare, like a dragged-up cross between Salome and Caligula. Add to his spectacular appearance the fact that he can sing, dance and turn cartwheels practically simultaneously, and it’s tough not to be impressed.
There are flames, coloured smoke and showers of glitter, among many other visual flourishes. When Judas accepts the reward for his treachery, his hands emerge stained silver. There’s not a huge amount of heart among all this hectic excitement, but it does have a visceral charge. And it’s fresh enough not only to show the JC faithful a pretty good time, but maybe even to win some new followers.