Jesus Christ Superstar | Live Show Review

Ruth Deller
Friday, February 23, 2024

I’m not sure if this show is going to entirely win over new converts, but ardent fans were left in raptures by the end

The company of the Jesus Christ Superstar Tour (photo: Paul Coltas)
The company of the Jesus Christ Superstar Tour (photo: Paul Coltas)

Jesus Christ Superstar has always been divisive. It’s an outrageous concept: a very ’70s rock opera about the last days of Christ, swinging wildly from melodrama to comedy. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice are, of course, masters at moving between tones and genres but this show in particular whips us rapidly between histrionic despair, cheesy pop songs, camp comedy and moving ballads in a way that isn’t always translated effectively.

I find this show most effective when it leans into its sense of camp and embraces excess. However, some past productions have taken themselves a bit too seriously. So how does this newer version fare?

There’s definitely a sense of spectacle in Timothy Sheader’s production, first performed at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2016: the industrial set is striking, with a huge cross splitting the stage in two and serving as a platform for some of the biggest numbers. Technically, this show has some excellent creative touches, such as Judas’s hands turning silver with his betrayal. A re-creation of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper is a beautiful piece of choreography, with the ensemble statue-still. The cast members are involved in the instrumentation, taking up guitars and percussion.

Clary’s arrival marks a turning point: after this, there’s a freer energy to routines

There are some showstopping takes on favourite songs. Ian McIntosh as Jesus gives an exceptional performance, especially during ‘Gethsemane’ where his mixture of petulant anger and unbearable despair come through clearly. Hannah Richardson as Mary Magdalene has a lovely voice and assured stage presence, while Shem Omari James brings a frenetic energy to Judas as his emotional state becomes ever more fractured. As the High Priests Caiaphas and Annas, Jad Habchi and Matt Bateman are delightfully pompous while Ryan O’Donnell’s Pilate plays the charisma and cowardice well. The excellent supporting cast is rarely offstage.

However, this is definitely a show of two halves. Part of the challenge is the storytelling, and some of this is more of an issue with the source material than this production. UK audiences in the ’70s were more likely to have had cultural knowledge of the gospels and characters. There isn’t really any orientation into Jesus’s world in the first act for people whose prior knowledge of the story might be more rudimentary. We don’t get much insight into who the different characters are or what they want. We move between songs with little sense of a strong narrative arc threading it together. In contrast, the second act has a much more straightforward (and familiar) story as we see the unfolding of Judas’s betrayal, Jesus’s growing agony and the deaths of both.

We first meet Jesus with acoustic guitar strapped to his back and a bunch of followers in youthful casual clothing, a bit earnest and try-hard like a particularly committed Christian youth pastor. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell if this is a deliberate reference or not. There are some big tunes in the first act, performed well, but there isn’t always enough of a sense of what’s at stake and it all feels a bit buttoned-up. For example, the High Priests are funny, precisely because they are so excessive, but there’s a feeling of ‘Are we allowed to laugh at this?’ This alters in Act Two, especially when big-name star Julian Clary’s Herod turns up.

Clary’s arrival marks a turning point: after this, the show really lets loose. There’s a much freer energy to the routines, and characters make more direct contact with the audience. This superior second act feels incredibly assured, with the tonal shifts from high-camp comedy to deep despair satisfyingly hitting their mark.

I’m not sure if this show is going to entirely win over new converts, but ardent fans were left in raptures by the end.

When this production makes its excesses a virtue and lets the audience in, not only does the humour land more successfully, so does the pathos. Jesus Christ Superstar is a ridiculous musical. When it embraces that, and takes us into its heart, we finally get a sense of why it’s endured as long as it has.

Production credits

Andrew Lloyd Webber music

Tim Rice lyrics

Cast Ian McIntosh, Shem Omari James, Julian Clary, Hannah Richardson, Ryan O’Donnell, Jad Habchi, Matt Bateman et al

Direction Timothy Sheader

Musical direction Michael Riley

Musical supervision Tom Deering

Choreography Drew McOnie

Set, costumes Tom Scutt

Lighting Lee Curran

Sound Nick Lidster

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today