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Jesus Christ Superstar review at Barbican Theatre, London – ‘still an absolute must’

Robert Tripolino in Jesus Christ Superstar at Barbican. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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This is still, probably, the best version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar there’s ever been. Timothy Sheader’s production started life in 2016 at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, where it reinvented what the show can be: unholy and profane, less of the JC and more of the Superstar. It managed to scrape away all of the naffness the show had built up, and bring it screaming and gleaming into the 21st century.

But, rising again for the third time, suddenly confined by the four walls of the Barbican theatre, it has made no effort to restrain itself, and at times it’s just too much. It’s still fairly obvious that this is a show built to be outdoors: all that reverb-heavy electric guitar, the pounding drums, the full brass blares. In Regent’s Park, it felt a lot more like the arena-style rock event it’s trying to be. At the Barbican, you can never quite forget you’re in a theatre.

Drew McOnie’s orgiastic choreography – part popstar backup dance, part Bacchic ritual – still looks incredible, Lee Curran’s brash arena lighting really zings, and Tom Scutt’s set is supreme: a structure of huge rusted iron girders, like an underground car park that never been finished, and in the centre of the stage a downed crucifix used as a catwalk. There’s also an absolutely fantastic band going to town on Tom Deering’s immense orchestrations.

Robert Tripolino and Sallay Garnett in Jesus Christ Superstar at Barbican. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Ricardo Afonso makes his Judas tortured, and he shows off some impressively acrobatic vocal work, plus there’s real villainy – and a great voice – from Matt Cardle as Pilate.

Some of the cast, though, are a bit underpowered – especially amid that roof-rattling orchestral sound. In 2016, Sheader deliberately cast non-musical theatre singers whose voices, rather than being polished and note-perfect, instead had bags of rough, raw character that suited the concept. The same approach here yields lesser results; the score’s ridiculously difficult passages, its wonky time signatures and its pointlessly unrelenting modulations need people who are more comfortably up to the challenge.

Robert Tripolino’s Jesus gets a bit swallowed up. He doesn’t make for the most dynamic JC, it’s hard to believe he’s capable of inspiring a religion, although he does some great screeching falsetto notes. Sallay Garnett as Mary is, likewise, great at full power but the sweeter, quieter melodies of I Don’t Know How to Love Him and Could We Start Again, Please are a little ropey.

For anyone who has not seen this production, it is still an absolute must. But compared to the high and heavenly standards it set itself three years ago, this reincarnation has lost something.

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Timothy Sheader’s extraordinary Jesus Christ Superstar is somewhat diminished in the Barbican