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Dance of Death

Joseph & Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

By • West End
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NOTE: Stephen Gately is no longer appearing in this production. For current cast information, see the show's performance listing.

We're back to where it all began, and also where it ended. The Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber story was finally launched in 1968 after several abortive collaborations with a 25-minute end-of-term schools version of what later become Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, now being revived at the New London Theatre.

And that fruitful partnership ended here, at the same address, in 1981 when Lloyd Webber went it alone without Rice, employing a member of the Dead Poet's Society instead as lyricist for Cats. That, of course, famously became the longest running musical in British history, only finally closing last year after 21 years.

But Joseph is the youthful folly with which the ceaselessly tuneful composer and wonderfully inventive lyricist first announced their talent to the world. And even if the material is now spread a little thin across two hours - endless reprises pad it out, including a curtain call encore that seems to reprise the entire score - there's an infectious pleasure both to the tunes and the words that still, more than 30 years later, completely captivates.

As, against my expectations, did this production. After the vastly overblown, self-consciously camp London Palladium revival that starred Jason Donovan in 1991, it's really refreshing to engage once again with this show in a far more modest offering that's much more true to the show's origins and real spirit.

That's partly to do with being cheesy instead of camp - to share the jokiness already inherent in the score, rather than impose it with effects. It's also performed with a guileless enthusiasm by a cast that, former Boyzone singer Stephen Gateley apart, is completely unknown (except, of course, to their mothers).

As for Gateley, though he's rather diminutive of both stature and voice in the title role, and the voice is sometimes as flat as his torso, he compensates with a nervous charm. The cartoon cut-out sets and props (designed by Sean Cavanagh) and the naff panto choreography (Henry Metcalfe) are also perfectly in synch with the light-hearted tone of the show that never takes itself seriously.

In the process, it is Rice's terrific lyrics that stand out once again, which is at it should be. They observe the crucial requirement of great lyrics, besides their wit: that they are full of compact storytelling. This, Rice and Lloyd Webber's first through-sung pop opera, conveys the entire story in brief but telling rhymes. The jealousy of Joseph's siblings, for instance, at the fact that he is their father's favourite son, is succinctly expressed thus: "Being told we're also-rans/does not make us Joseph fans/But where they had really missed the boat is/We're great guys but no-one seems to notice".

It's that kind of lyrical vitality that gives this show its enduring freshness. "Don't give up Joseph, fight till you drop/We've read the book and you come out on top," he's advised by the narrator (a gutsy, Sarah Brightman clone Vivienne Carlyle) when he's flung into prison. This is a show that still comes out on top, every time.

- Mark Shenton


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