After my last (and first) visit to the O2, to see Julie Andrews, I vowed never to set foot in the place again. But this fantastic production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's unsurpassed rock oratorio - no book, just chorales, anthems, and nine soloists – really does take off in the huge arena, with superb (at first, far too loud) sound from a band of just ten players, supervised by John Rigby and Nigel Wright.
Well done, Ben Forster, winner of the search for a Superstar television talent show. He offers a very decently acted - he looks a bit like a be-wigged Alan Bates in a black greatcoat - and convincingly emotional Jesus. And he manages most of the very great demands made on a singer’s range, strength and “rock god” potential.
But the honours resoundingly go to Tim Minchin as Judas, whose rodent-like, glam hippie appearance chimes exactly with the loosely applied and brilliantly appropriate image vocabulary of last year’s Occupy London campaign on the steps of St Paul’s.
Minchin stalks the insurgency, singing his soul away in a Faustian pact with the city bigwigs led by Pete Gallagher’s imposing Caiphas. The turmoil on the streets, and all the songs, are replicated in some remarkable screen projections and media messages (“What’s the Buzz?” is accompanied by a flurry of on-screen tweets and texts) by Sam Pattinson and bask in the sensational lighting of the true maestro of the Olympic Games ceremonies, Patrick Woodroffe.
This is the piece that Shostakovich admired so much forty years ago, wishing he could have written something similar in the Soviet Union, though the extraordinary scoring of the original is a little sacrificed for rock arena blare; rhythms, syncopations, weird time signatures and the sheer melodic fecundity are all in place, but that particular, innovative overlap between rock group and classical band is sadly missing.
Especially so in the desolate finale on the cross, “John Nineteen Forty-One.” That cross is done by lighting gantries descending on the urban wilderness, a civic bank of steps or a football terrace, populated by the crowd of protestors (the chorus is absolutely terrific, always interestingly energised by director Laurence Connor) who change to persecutors in a mesh-wire evocation of Guantanamo Bay, Jesus issued with orange boiler suit.
The crowd’s banner is “Believe the Twelve” (the apostles) and adorns the concrete exterior of a temple that resembles a badly defaced version of the National Theatre on the South Bank. And they’re a crowd of street artists, too, cavorting at suitable moments, notably that joyous, triumphant entry into Jerusalem, “Heysanna, Hosanna.”
Rice’s lyrics fully retain their slangy freshness, fun and literate bloom. One of the highlights, as ever, is Herod’s point number, here re-worked as a game show challenge issued by disc jockey Chris Moyles’s greasy host; Moyles does well, and sings okay, but is “carried” by the concept and the surrounding song and dance.
No such excuses are needed for Melanie C’s affecting Mary Magdalene. She puts in a fine acting performance, and thoughtful, touching versions of her two wistful, lyrical numbers. And a special mention for Alexander Hanson, who is outstanding as Pontius Pilate, a vain and diffident High Court judge who receives the prisoner while completing his physical jerks (and singing).