Saturday, September 22, 2012

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at the o2, 21st September 2012

'Jesus Christ Superstar' is one of those big cultural touchstones that has completely passed me by.  Aside from the obvious fact that it was about Jesus, I had absolutely no idea what I was letting myself in for.  Was it going to be some holy rolling preachy affair?  Some kind of weird musical set in Biblical times?  I'm pretty damn far from being a religious man, is this really the show for me? I got my answer pretty quickly.  The house lights went down and slowly a group of young people in street clothes took to the stage and set up tents.  They were followed by a line of riot police, and the two engaged in tightly choreographed but brutal conflict.

This was the opening night of this new production, which upon finishing up 3 nights in the 02 will travel around Britain visiting all major city arenas.  It's a star-studded show, but always feels intelligently cast.  Tim Minchin plays Judas, a good fit given Minchin's talent for machinegun quick lyrical delivery.  Melanie Chisholm plays Mary Magdalene, a bit of a resurgence as the last thing I remember her doing was a single with Bon Jovi a very long time ago.  Playing Jesus is Ben Forster, who is apparently the winner of a reality show called 'Superstar'.  I'm not familiar with anyone else in the cast with one exception: Chris Moyles plays Herod.  My initial reaction on hearing this was that it reeked of stunt-casting, I assumed it was something to get bums on seats purely through curiosity.

Tim Minchin as Judas and Ben Forster as Jesus
This show is pretty bombastic stuff, with the steps that make up the stage coming apart to reveal performers within, flames erupting from the ground and during the climax a shower of rose petals and a giant illuminated cross.  The 02 seats about 20,000 and for quite a lot of those people the performers are going to closely resemble ants.  This means any production here must be larger than life or it's going to be swallowed up by the size of the venue.  Certain performers seem to be able to enthral the enormous space more than others, particularly Ben Forster and Mel C.  When they're singing, they turn the fact that they're a tiny shred of humanity on a huge stage into an advantage rather than a disadvantage. 

I didn't see the TV show that picked the Jesus for this show, but the rejects were milling around the guest box office picking up their consolation tickets before the performance.  They looked like a gaggle of tuxed, overly waxed and primped mimbos, this that didn't fill me with a huge amount of confidence.  If their Jesus is cut from this crowd then the show's going to be unbearable.  But it's clear from the first time Forster lets loose his remarkable voice that the judges made a fine choice. Forster performs some amazing vocal gymnastics in this performance, but thankfully it never feels like his singing is extravagant just for the sake of it.  A good example is the screeching, angry falsetto he falls into when ejecting the money lenders from the temple (or, er in this case, the techno strip club).  Though he's working through some complex songs, he always emotes, his acting performance doesn't falter at all.  The best example is in in 'Gethsemane' where he's pleading with God to spare his life.  Forster manages to enrapture everyone here.  You could have heard a pin drop when he finished.  A good sign.

Melanie Chisholm as Mary Magdalene
I suppose if anyone in the cast is used to singing to arena crowds it's going to be Melanie Chisholm.  She's pretty damn brilliant in this, with a strong, clear voice that manages to encompass both the purity of the character, and also make her lascivious past believable.  When she on stage mournfully singing "I've had so many different men, in so many different ways" it seems both tragic and down to earth.  Despite the character being a prostitute Chisholm imbues her with a definite dignity, but at the same time we can see why Judas disapproves of her Yoko Ono like influence upon Jesus.   Like Forster, Chisholm manages to hold the audience in the palm of her hand during her solo numbers, the strength of her voice underlining and supporting the character's convictions.  I'm not sure what Mel C's been up for the last few years, but it's to paid off in spades.

Chris Moyles as Herod
Also worthy of praise is Chris Moyles.  And believe me, that's a sentence I thought I'd never write.  What business does Moyles, the egotistic breakfast radio presenter have in a touring stage show?  I'd initially figured that the logic was that if you're going to have a character that calls for the death of children, then it sounds almost believable coming from him.  But, annoyingly he's great.  You'd figure in this kind of stunt casting that he'd be playing himself, and while this Herod is a chat show host and entertainer he's quite distinct from Moyles radio persona.  Of all the cast he's the only one that doesn't quite fit into the 'musical' ethos, but he works this to his advantage.  He half-sings, half-talks his way through the funniest song in the play, dancing around and mocking Jesus in a cruel parody of, I guess, the very type of show that got Ben Forster the part in the first place.

Not everything here works quite as well as it should though.  Surprisingly, one of the weak points is Tim Minchin, although I suspect that this is more of a technical issue than any fault on his part.  If you wanted to cast someone who can deliver rat-a-tat singing, enunciating every word, he'd be the person you'd go for, right?  Anyway, he's already got the hair and beard to play a disciple, so you're saving money on costuming and makeup already.  Minchin has just come off his critically acclaimed adaptation of Roald Dahl's 'Matilda' in the West End so he knows the ropes of musical theatre.  Despite all this, he never quite convinces.  

To fill such a large space, they've cranked the volume way up.  This is a loud show, very loud.  I go to a lot of concerts, and at times even I thought it was a bit too much and some audience members were apparently constructing ear plugs out of tissue paper.  Despite it being so loud, the mid-levels seem to be crushed together, meaning that the complex vocals get drowned out but the instrumentation.  The character of Judas in this play explores his state of mind surrounding the betrayal of Jesus, but the problem here is that we can't make out what he's saying.  This means no matter how fine the performance, much of it never reaches us.  This acoustic problem affects most of the cast to some degree, but it seems to particularly impact upon Minchin.  I've seen him before, and I know he's got the skills to pull off a role like this.  Maybe if I was nearer the front I might have had a different opinion, but in an arena show like this you absolutely need to reach every single audience member in the room.

Putting on a show like this in an arena is both an opportunity and a huge headache.  You've got the space and the facilities to produce some pretty damn spectacular effects, but at the same time you have to consider how you're going to let even those in the 'cheap' seats get a good show.  If you're in a West End theatre, then these restricted view seats would be heavily discounted.  Here, as far as I could tell, the cheapest seats were on sale for £45.  At this price, you need to guarantee value for money.  Unfortunately this production doesn't - if you're sitting off to the side on a high level you simply won't be able to see a large amount of what's going on.

At the rear of the stage there's a large video screen, and throughout we're either shown closeups of who's singing, or pre-produced video clips and effects as a kind of virtual scenery.  These range from CG brutalist buildings, to news footage, even to streaks of blood as Jesus is whipped.  Being able to see a close up view of the action on stage is vital for those of us far away, but unfortunately if you're far enough away to really need this screen it's generally obscured by the set and the lighting rig.  It's a shame, because while the cast seems to be having a great time, and while I'm sure the audience in the expensive seats are having the show of their lives, it feels like those of us left up in the gods are treated with slight contempt.

Another aspect of the show that slightly bothered me was the appropriation of imagery from the Occupy movement.  Much of the merchandise for the show features vaguely anarchistic slogans, and this punky aesthetic continues throughout the show.  The problem with this is that it's just that, an aesthetic.  As someone who was involved in Occupy it's a bit strange to see it co-opted so quickly into mainstream popular culture with nothing but lip service paid to the politics behind it.  In fact, though it remains sympathetic to those protesting, it manages even in shallow musical form to portray Occupy in a misleading light.  One of the major ideological thrusts of the movement is a move away from centralised demagogery and towards collective, inclusive decision making.  Rhetorical speeches and highly visible leaders were something explicitly avoided, but this show posits the Jesus character as the object that everything else orbits.  Obviously within the constraints of performing a set text like 'Jesus Christ Superstar' it's going to be difficult to inject too much genuine political thought, but even so, it seems a bit cynical to appropriate an on-going and relevant political movement to promote an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical.

I did have a good night out seeing this, and there's a reason why this show undergoes regular revivals (resurrections?) - it's got a lot of great songs, and there's rarely a dull moment.  However, this production never takes advantage of the space given to it by the arena setting; there's nothing here that couldn't be accomplished on a West End stage.  Considering even those in highly restricted view seats will be paying £45 a ticket, it's difficult to recommend.

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3 Responses to “‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at the o2, 21st September 2012”

Phil R. said...
September 22, 2012 at 1:03 PM

55,000?! 20,000 is the capacity. Good review though, thanks.

londoncitynights said...
September 22, 2012 at 1:18 PM

Whoops! Thanks for the correction.

steven said...
August 29, 2013 at 7:44 PM This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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