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Excellent – even if Jesus is a bit sulky: Jesus Christ Superstar reviewed

Plus: why state-run theatres should commission dramatists who can write plays rather than ex-dramatists like Caryl Churchill who can’t – or won’t

30 July 2016

9:00 AM

30 July 2016

9:00 AM

Jesus Christ Superstar

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, until 27 August

Pigs and Dogs

Royal Court, until 30 July

An inspired decision to stage Jesus Christ Superstar in a summer theatre in Regent’s Park. The action takes place outdoors, in balmy climes, so the atmosphere is ideal for Rice and Lloyd Webber’s finest show. The songbook bursts with melodic inventiveness, and the score blithely rips apart the conventions of musical theatre and remakes them afresh. Lloyd Webber finds two contemporary registers and switches between them constantly: first the eerie, unhinged menace of late-1960s heavy rock, and secondly the sweet, escapist loveliness of 1970s pop. The transitions from blunt savagery to pure sugar sometimes occur with gunshot abruptness, on a single note.

Tim Rice’s lyrical complexity and dramatic assurance are evident from the very first salvo delivered by a jealous but hard-headed Judas pleading with Jesus to restrain the dangerous adulation of his followers. The superb Tyrone Huntley (Judas) has the authentic howl of a rock star and his angry urchin’s features are full of despairing recrimination. Great stuff from Caiaphas and the Pharisees, a chorus line of thugs in weird sci-fi costumes, who purr and sway through their numbers with dainty co-ordinated gestures. They’re chic, funky, absurd and threatening all at once. Peter Caulfield as the camp gangster, Herod, is the highlight of the second act (but hats off to the authors for creating the best cameo in musical theatre). Elsewhere there are patches and holes. Anoushka Lucas (Mary Magdalene) sings beautifully but her face conveys none of the agonised self-reproach offered by the lyrics. She looks bored. While she warbles passionlessly through ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ the ‘Him’ in question, Jesus, is moping cross-legged against a low wall fiddling with baccy and Rizlas. Yes, the Son of God smokes roll-ups. Surely an early miracle could have solved his cravings. Or, failing that, the Paraclete might have sent some nicotine patches clamped in the beak of a sacred dove.

The part is played by Declan Bennett, a fallen boyband star, whose facial lineaments lack the psychological qualities of Jesus. He doesn’t look noble, grave, wise, saintly, or even kind. Just a bit sulky. A plain white robe would help create a messianic aura (ask any priest) but he’s togged out in the same undistinguished Glastonbury flannels as his disciples. The grey strands in his beard need to be dealt with and his shaved Shoreditch hairdo owes far too much to the stormtrooper look of Ernst Röhm’s Brownshirts. When hitting the high notes he adds Whitney Houston’s facial acrobatics, which don’t improve the vocal quality, they just plead with the audience for understanding. ‘Look I’m really struggling to get this right.’ But ‘struggling’ doesn’t square with divinity. When he sings angrily at God for incarnating him as a man he accompanies himself on the guitar, which destroys the dramatic illusion and turns the opera into a cruise-ship gig.

Pilate (David Thaxton) does the same thing. And Thaxton is too young to play a senior official of the Roman Empire. With his black topcoat and smeary eye make-up he looks like Adam Ant dressed as a teddy boy auditioning for a busking licence. Let me add that these are the complaints of a die-hard fan. No production of one’s favourite musical can be perfect and there’s enough quality here to make this an excellent show.

Caryl Churchill is turning into one of those dotty pranksters who bedevil old folks’ homes by playing jokes on her fellow-inmates. And her career as a public nuisance is being abetted by subsidised theatres. The Royal Court is responsible for her latest ‘play’, Pigs and Dogs, and I add the quotes because a proper play has a story, characters, tension, movement, escalation, resolution. This frivolity is a set of snippets about gay history in Africa. Three actors wearing couch-potato clothes utter various bits and bobs: lists of words for gay in sub-Saharan languages; the names of gay tribes who are proud and savage warmongers; the favourite punishment of the lynch mob, ‘hang them!’.We hear the leaders of Uganda and Zimbabwe boast that gay repression is crucial to their independence and their survival. And that’s it.

Mercifully this recitation of the self-evident lasts just 15 minutes but it’s worth pointing out that any commercial producer offered this script would have turned it into hamster-litter, not into a full-scale production with trained actors and a marketing budget. Last year cheeky Ms Churchill duped the National into staging another of her skits, which ran for barely half an hour although the closing third was a mime act in which a distinguished old actor was repeatedly robbed of his pants by a deaf-mute nurse. State-run theatres should lend their resources to dramatists who can write plays rather than to ex-dramatists who can’t. Or won’t.

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