Review: Jesus Christ Superstar, O2 Arena

“Tell the mob who sing your song that they are fools and they are wrong”

Having gone down the road of television casting once again for one of his shows and quite possibly killing off the genre at the same time, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s much-touted revival of his 1971 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar will hopefully have the same effect on staging theatrical productions in cavernous arenas like London’s O2. Director Laurence Connor’s concept has been to relocate the loose retelling of Jesus’ last week to a modern-day context, pulling out strong allusions to the Occupy movement, riots, Guantánamo Bay and reality television. 

Tim Minchin’s Judas is the undoubted highlight of the show, a stirringly confident rock vocal of fierce conviction that near perfectly captures the essence of what Lloyd-Webber is trying to achieve but elsewhere there is much less strength. Ben Forster’s Jesus mauls Gethsemane almost beyond recognition but fares better elsewhere where his falsetto is more aptly deployed and his angst not so overplayed; Melanie Chisholm’s goth take on Mary Magdalene is anaemically thin and utterly forgettable; Chris Moyles’ highly gimmicky Jerry Springer-esque King Herod – he hosts a show called Hark! with Herod, a rare flash of genuine humour – is thankfully brief; Alex Hanson’s Pilate is a quality performance that stands out from a hard-working ensemble, but too often the wide lens of the show means that their efforts pass by unnoticed.

There’s one single electrifying moment, where it finally feels like the production has thought about the environment in which it is playing and produces an image of searing simplicity and much needed raw emotion which plays out to the back wall and beyond. It features Tim Minchin naturally, but too often the detail in the show is just completely lost with the intermittent use of the video wall that dominates Mark Fisher’s set design meaning that several key moments are barely visible – the placing of the crown on Jesus’ head surely being the most glaring omission.

And ultimately that is the problem with the show in a nutshell, it’s a piece of theatre that wants to be a rock concert and ends up doing neither particularly well. It is not enough to say “well you’re not in a theatre” to excuse it, the fact is that a detailed piece of theatre is presented in front of us, not a concert at all. This is a production that is more concerned with using video effects on its screen for artistic impact, than ensuring that audience members – some of whom are more than 300 metres from the stage in this venue – can actually see what is going on and connect emotionally. That something so essential to an arena tour has been overlooked is hard to fathom; that it is a theatre production whose staging is so unconcerned with drawing in its audience is near unforgivable.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £10
Booking until 23rd September, then tours to Glasgow, Newcastle, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Belfast, Dublin, Liverpool, Wembley, Nottingham and Sheffield

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