Review: Jesus Christ Superstar. The People’s Theatre Company Nottingham.

four star

On an alliterative ‘specially sunny ‘superstar’ Sunday September afternoon it would take a modern miracle to get people to go to the theatre and sit in the dark for two hours – one would think. Well it seems a modern miracle has worked its miraculous way to the Nottingham Arts Theatre.

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Here the amateur company The People’s Theatre Company Nottingham have been weaving their magic with their already acclaimed modern dress production of Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar and this afternoon is their last performance.

The theatre is three quarter full, no bribes of fish or wine are in evidence, and the audience is doing their Sunday best whooping and cheering each and every number and the direction (director Chris Teasdale) thereof. The musical direction (musical director David Hails) and acoustically muscular five member band add enormously to the feel of the show. The simple set design (Laura Ellis and Francis Lowe) allows enough symbolism – a subtly hidden cross – and performer fluidity to the musical for seamless transitions to work.

This critic (Phil Lowe) is already impressed by the end of the first half by a powerfully voiced and emotionally connected Judas (Sam Barson), a Jesus to die for ( a fine performance by Patrick McCrystal), a Mary Magdalene (Vivienne Tay) that shows genuine compassion for Jesus Christ and has the tender voice of an angel and a stunningly realised and vocally very strong Pilate (Jason Wrightam). This is possibly the first time we have seen Pilate as a disturbed Roman governor hitting the post religious hangover, hair of the dog, glass of whisky but Wrightam pulls it off.

We are left with two especially haunting scenes by the end of the first half and those are the grasping lepers at the end of ‘The Temple’ scene and Jesus failing to deal with the weight of their ‘heal me’ demands. Equally we find ourselves theatrically consummate in witnessing the ever strong performance of Barson as Judas who is feeling the weight of his guilt betraying Christ in ‘Damned For All Time’. Meng Khaw is physically and vocally imposing as the unmovable priest Caiaphas. Khaw is one the strongest and most professional amateur musical theatre performers in the region.

The ensemble work throughout the show is strong considering the mixed abilities of the large amateur cast. Performer Laura Ellis shines as Simon Zealotes especially during the upbeat ‘Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem’ section of the show. Generally, there is very impressive work done on the interpretation of the text and songs throughout which really come across and fresh and fully comprehended by the cast. The choreography and ensemble movement skills are  equally sound.

Eager to return to the final section the audience engage wholeheartedly into Jesus Christ Superstar part Tsvey. Yiddish for two, btw. It is fascinating to consider why an audience would invest in the penultimate part of an already known story or even musical. Everyone knows that Christ will die an agonising death on the cross and that the baying crowd on stage (or at least singing their hearts out hidden in the wings) will further contribute to the fate of the titular figure. Likewise, the audience are aware that Judas is the ultimate guilty scapegoat of Christ’s betrayal. The guy is sold down the line for a measly thirty pieces of silver – much less than two Euros twenty cents in today’s currency. Yet we still hang on to our tattered velum seats for the grisly outcome and some hopeful cathartic redemption. Does it come in this production?

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Well, yes it does. It comes unreservedly via some elaborate camp chicanery from the Herod character ( a superbly menacing but funny John Gill) and a return visit to Wrightam’s impressive bad boy role as fifth prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. Pilate is crushed by the enormity of public opinion over Christ’s fate whilst still trying to maintain his public authority in his world governed by Roman imperialism under Emperor Tiberius. A little known pubic nuisance and rabble rouser stroke mysterious miracle maker Jesus Christ is dispatched in a tortuous manner that defies belief in today’s society.

Jesus’s (McCrystal’s) violently applied wounds (make up by Emma Berry) serve the piece well and bring a further realism to the production that attempts to give a contemporary feel to Jesus Christ Superstar.

A Sunday afternoon shouldn’t be the place or time for tears running down the face but as we leave the Nottingham Arts Theatre with the memory of the final poignant strains of John Nineteen: Forty-One behind us the sterling production of Jesus Christ Superstar by The People’s Theatre Company Nottingham is certainly one to linger long in the memory of performers and punters.

Reviewer: Phil Lowe.

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