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Michael Coveney: Jesus rocks & Julietta dreams in party mood

By • West End
Two big shows, two big parties, weird weather - an all-day downpour, snow (or were they small piles of melted hailstones that were settling in the gutters?) - a fire alarm, and a quick dash round the Edvard Munch exhibition at the Tate: there was a lot going off this weekend, and I still had to find time for shopping, jogging and writing.

Honestly, I have no idea how people who have them ever get away to their country cottages or beach huts on a Friday night. I remember a crusty but civilised critic of the old school on the New Yorker, Brendan Gill, addressing a group of London critics on a Friday evening and opening with the line that he was surprised that none of us had taken  off to our homes in the hills.

My idea of getting away for the weekend is staying at home, or as close to it as I possibly can. But there's always something cropping up, such as Jesus Christ Superstar at the O2 Arena on Friday night. And I wouldn't have missed it for anything, though the actual business of being in the O2 itself is deeply unpleasant.

"This is much more a rock and roll night," said Andrew Lloyd Webber to a gaggle of us gathering in the hideous black VIP bar area, "not your average sort of show at the Menier Chocolate Factory." You, or rather he, can say that again. Once you get over the shock of sitting in the same place with 10,000 other people, with no football going on, you appreciate the rare excitement of watching a musical masterpiece that is not aimed at an exclusive coterie of picky Sondheimite devotees.

And what about "rock god" Tim Minchin as Judas Iscariot? Some performance indeed, and he doesn't even need a wig to look like a hippie street protester, coming with his ready-made Wurzel Gummidge hair-do, eye-liner and rabbity face hair. The programme, unusually, asks each of the leading artists to explain their relationship with the still astonishingly fresh and challenging piece of work in hand.

Minchin's reply is a classic: "What actor doesn't want the opportunity to play a character who starts frustrated, ends broken, kills himself, and then comes back from the dead in tight trousers to sing a five-minute satirical rock song backed by sexy soul singers? I have wanted to play this role for twenty years."

And play it indeed he does, with a snarling vengeance that suggests we're lucky he's not replaced Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull in his own musical hit, Matilda, otherwise he'd be scaring not just the children in the Cambridge Theatre but their parents, as well as the ushers, the bar staff and the security officers.

You never want to miss a Richard Jones production, and his staging of Bohuslav Martinu's 1938 magical surreal opera Julietta at the ENO proves, literally, unmissable. A sleepless Parisian bookseller is haunted by the memory of a girl he heard singing in a coastal town. In a dream, he finds himself back there, in a place where everyone is amnesiac and responds only to his childhood memory of a toy duck.

How to describe the Czech Martinu's music? It's sometimes like Janacek's, sometimes like jazz, sometimes like the music of the spheres, always witty, and lushly orchestrated with some great swelling orchestral passages, brought pulsatingly to life by the ENO orchestra under Edward Gardner.

Even the French author of the source play, Georges Neveux, said that Martinu had surpassed his own work in grace and profundity, making from it a musical masterpiece that dazzled him.

One of the inhabitants in the forgetful town plays the accordion and apologises for it; Jones's designer, Antony McDonald, responds by creating three sets of huge accordions that encompass the place, the forest at night-time - the second act is absolutely ravishing - and finally the central bureau of dreams, where the lost bookseller applies for another slumberland expedition.

The show has been pretty well reviewed, but tickets haven't flown out of the box office, so I kept bumping into people who had paid either £15 or £20 for excellent seats somehow. There are only four more performances and if I weren't going away for a few days holiday later this week I'd be at the head of the non-existent queue to return to the pillow party.

But I'm probably all partied out anyway for the time being. At lunchtime yesterday, our friend and neighbour, city financier Madeleine Hodgkin, celebrated a big birthday in the sponsors' area of the National Theatre (she's a big money-giving supporter).

The NT hosts such private functions all the time, even when the theatre is up and running, which it wasn't yesterday. The food was fair enough, the steel band charming, the weather appalling, ruining the special joy of this location on the third floor with an outside decking area and great river views.

Our second social engagement was at the London wedding party of colleague Mark Shenton who married his partner Mark Corrigan (that's two Marks for the price of one, perhaps even a "mark up") in New York in July. Mark One (Shenton) doesn't like to be outside of a theatre for too many minutes in the day, but he had to settle for second best in a rehearsal room at the Jerwood Studios on Union Street last night.

And that is where - after a couple of wonderful hours in the Tate, munching on Munch - we saw the fire evacuation outside the Travelodge Hotel (where we'd parked the car) - and then the white fluffy stuff as we hastened in the driving rain towards the celebration, joining several other critics and friendly PRs, and a minor host of musical theatre folk. Had the Marks sisters shipped over some early Christmas cheer from their natural habitat in Radio City?

Even producers such as Bill Kenwright, Danielle Tarento of Southwark Playhouse and Sonia Friedman turned out for them, and Mark One pointedly drew their attention to a taster of Dougal Irvine's un-produced musical, In Touch, from which the composer sang a very beguiling love rock song.

This was preceded by Howard Goodall accompanying Michael Xavier and Emma Williams at the electric keyboard in a couple of numbers from his recent musical Love Story, and this seemed to go down well with everyone in the room who knows Goodall's talent and worth; and that really was everyone, from the critics to the professionals, who included Michael Jibson and his very pregnant wife Caroline Sheen (Michael's cousin); Vivienne Goodwin, the new MD of Rodgers and Hammerstein in Europe; Maria Friedman, Frances Ruffelle and cabaret singer Barb Jungr, who's playing the new Hippodrome Casino room this week.

Congrats, Marks, on a triple whammy occasion: one wedding and two birthdays, Mark One hitting 50, baby Mark Two a mere 41. And how sweet they looked, in their beards and seersucker wedding suits, such a nice change from their usual first night clobber of "I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK" checked shirts and big boots.


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