Review: Jesus Christ Superstar. Beyond Theatre. St Mary’s Church. 11-13 July.

Jesus Christ Superstar the ‘rock opera’ musical paradoxically has Judas Iscariot as its notorious main protagonist – its driving theatrical force – its misguided perpetrator of eventual political and religious change. Had Judas not given in to his corrupted passions and sold the prophet Jesus out to the religiously threatened high priests, who want no Messiah in their midst thank you, all might have been a relatively ordinary Romano- Judaic 30 AD period in happy go lucky Galilee. However, this spiteful money grabbing deed by Judas escalated the ‘problem’ up to the governing bad boy ruling Romans and right there the status quo becomes downright deadly. It is debatable that maybe there would never have grown a Christian faith had Judas not done his deed. According to the JCS musical Jesus wasn’t seen by the governing bodies as a particular threat to the social order. As Pontius Pilate sings “I’ll agree he’s mad, ought to be locked up but that is no reason to destroy him…”

Pilate sends the arrested Jesus to the self-centred Herod who proclaims him to be a joke and transmits him, post haste, back once more to Pilate who himself is haunted by a dream that he would be the one to blame for Christ’s death by crucifixion. Taunted by the black mood of the now strangely angry crowd and, his own neck on the block if he doesn’t put this man Jesus Christ to death, he orders Jesus to be grossly whip lashed to within an inch of his life. He then orders Jesus’ fatal punishment of being nailed to a rough wooden cross and left to die from his multiple wounds, crippling suffocation, abject thirst and the heat. Prior to this Judas begins to suffer from mammoth pangs of guilt from his actions and hangs himself from a tree. In the musical Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber build in a kind of celebration of Jesus in the bright ensemble titular number ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ but its lyrics also contain the ignorant and mocking tones of Judas who even accuses Jesus of letting events get out of hand. He is saying ‘Hey come on it’s not my fault if you want to call yourself the Son Of God. You brought all this on yourself!’. This is typical language of the guilty ones who attempt to heap blame onto the innocent even if the ‘guilty’ are somewhat extra-ordinary in their deeds and beliefs.

Jesus Christ Superstar the ‘rock opera’ has spawned thousands of productions across the world since its beginnings in the early 1970s. Some have been outdoor events, some in indoor theatre spaces, some on film and a few in arena style venues. It is an exciting piece of musical theatre whose score and lyrics still thrill audiences far and wide.

Beyond Theatre have put together what they call an immersive production with a talented amateur cast with musical director Tom Bond at its helm. This production takes place in St Mary’s Church in Nottingham’s Lace Market district 11th-13th July. Like many an old church it has its own atmospheres from years of worship and, for the show, the light through the stained glass windows is augmented with a simple theatrical lighting rig. There is a raised stage area at the front of the church for some of the action to take place on but the thirteen strong cast also utilise the rest of the whole main body of the church. They structure much of the action and of course songs in the middle aisle. In reality it is less immersive and more promenade with a few variations. The pews have been set aside and the seating is on modern chairs and there are ranks of tables on which there is wine and fruit. Using this format has its benefits in being close to the actors and the story unfolding but also, because of the great length of the church there are times when the performers are a fair distance away and the audience member has to rely on the auditory rather than observing the show front on as in a traditional theatre.

The amateur cast are very committed to the piece and the singing standards are high as is the music and audio effects. The performers are miked up and the acoustics of the church help to dramatically amplify the robust sound. The show isn’t what you’d call experimental in its depiction but the action and placement of crucial scenes with its engrossed onlooking audience are solidly directed. In the few short periods where there is just the atmosphere of the show’s music and no action the immersive nature loses out to a more regular production where proscenium arch effects can take place and keep the audience’s attention.

What does keep the attention are some terrific performers including the supremely vocally expressive Andy Quinn as Judas. This is a pivotal role that Quinn has played before in another production at Mansfield which we reviewed, and his portrayal is thrilling and professional. Every word of his songs are clear, his actions and motivations direct and he is a performer that IS the song, not just an actor who happens to be singing the song. We were very impressed.

Jesus is enjoyably and solidly played by Zain Abrahams and his portrayal is more inclined to a quieter contemplative Jesus in the first half and his playing temperature rises considerably in the second half. His style of singing throughout is soulful and then more emotively impactful in the classic number Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say). His scenes with Mary (Jessica Bridge) have a tenderness to them which is palpable. Mary’s main songs I Don’t Know How To Love Him and Everything’s Alright are well considered and technically well delivered.

The crucifixion scene in this production is put over without an actual crucifix on stage and whether this is due to financial economics or theatrical economics on part of the company we feel that the end looses a great deal of its poignancy and understanding of Christ on stage suffering for his choice to die in this horrific manner. Another option would have been a body suggestion of the human positioning on the cross underneath the nave arches where there is an old ornate cross high up. The lights do focus on the upper nave and cross after John Nineteen: Forty One but it comes over a bit too late. Without wanting to sound sarcastic or of detriment to the actor, the scene comes across as Jesus getting a severe beating from the whip, kneeling with his cloaked body away from the audience then, as the lights go down, nipping off in the dark to safety and recuperation.

The high priests Annas, (Andrew Buxton), Caiaphas (David Hawker) and priest (Lucas Young) in their imposing tall hatted costumes are exceptionally good in acting and vocal terms. Positioned slightly higher in the pulpits they give off an impression of aloof and angry imperialism.

Benito Preite is the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate and we love his melancholy Pilate’s Dream and the piteous threatening duet between Pilate and Christ. Although Preite is a little young to play the older Roman prefect his depiction has the necessary authority and gravity. His costume is also one of the best in the show.

If you like your dark comedy roles as an actor in musical theatre you can’t go wrong with being cast as the bonkers and only a tiny bit camp Herod. Lucas Young throws off his priest robes with abandon, whacks on some glittery hot pants, plenty of saucy attitude, a sparkling blue cloak and appears once again as a very bouncy in yer face Herod. Young knows how to work a crowd with Herod’s song and goes full tilt at it.

The ensemble themselves give everything to their group numbers such as Hosanna, The Temple, What’s The Buzz and the tender Could We Start Again Please. Their honesty and commitment make this immersive piece work so well because they and their songs are so intertwined with the concentration and mood of the audience so close to them.

Overall this Beyond Theatre, immersive, virtually promenade, production of Jesus Christ Superstar is a success because of the commitment of the talented cast and that they work hard to put aside the challenges of the space. They are up against acting very close up to an audience, (not easy) some of whom can be most distracting in their behaviours sat in the almost daylight that are not so evident in a darkened auditorium. We didn’t quite get whisked back to 30 AD as the marketing suggested but all praise to the cast and creatives for giving it a bloody good try.

 

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