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Review: Jesus Christ Superstar (Barbican Theatre)

Timothy Sheader's production is revived at the Barbican

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Ricardo Afonso and Robert Tripolino in Jesus Christ Superstar
© Johan Persson

Three years after its initial, award-winning run at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, Timothy Sheader's Superstar is resurrected, complete with a new cast and new venue at the Barbican Theatre.

The production of Andrew Lloyd Webber (who has a whopping five musicals playing in London this summer) and Tim Rice's 49-year old epic, about the demise and death of Jesus Christ, remains a spectacle even without the Regent's Park treetop canopy. If the Open Air run was a Glastonbury set, then the Barbican transfer is a flashy gig at the O2 Academy – everything is thrust forward, so intimately close that you can almost smell the haze wafting into the auditorium. It's helped by Tom Scutt's cracking design – silhouettes of jagged crucifixes, cut out of metal girders, loom over the action as Christ is initially adored by onlookers before being sent to his death.

Webber's tunes remain as tricky as ever, but on the whole, the cast does a fine job of tackling them. Ricardo Afonso, having the unenviable task of filling the shoes of WhatsOnStage and Olivier Award-nominee Tyrone Huntley, fits the role of Judas like a glove – slipping in and out of falsetto with ease. Older than Huntley, he gives the unfaithful disciple a sage sense of consternation and worry, simmering and stewing until he inevitably betrays his leader. Robert Tripolino plays Jesus almost as an entitled boyband member, gliding through his disciples with floppy brown hair.

Matt Cardle in Jesus Christ Superstar
© Johan Persson

But that's the master stroke of Sheader's production, aided by some assertive, lunging choreography from Drew McOnie. What begins as carefully synchronised adulation in "What's The Buzz" escalates into a cultish frenzy in "The Temple" – glitter is thrown across the stage, Tripolino is pawed at, fawned upon. The leader sent to liberate is swallowed up and stranded among a sea of revellers. It's only during his rousing "Gethsemane" that he comes to terms with his impending death and, as he lies on the cross, Tripolino pitiably cries out for a father, becoming some small, feeble, child of a man.

In the second act, Matt Cardle shines as a tormented Pilate, while Sallay Garnett channels the best parts of Joni Mitchell in a deft portrayal of Mary, powerlessly looking on as her lover is whipped (by the same glitter that was used by Jesus' followers in act one to celebrate his divine leadership) and crucified. Just like the denier Peter, the masses are fickle – they worship Christ and moments later will bow their heads to Caesar.

It's the brutish force of Jesus' executioners Caiaphas and Annas (Cavin Cornwall and Nathan Amzi) that feels underserved in Sheader's production – for the most part, the High Priests are stuck on a small, raised dais, repeating the same choreography for their numbers. The threat of death only really materialises when garish globules of makeup supervisor Jessica Plews' fake blood are smeared across Triplino.

It isn't hard to see why the show was such a critical and audience success the first time around, and even three years down the line, the piece feels like a hot take on what could easily have become a tiring classic.