Walking through Regent's Park on a blissful summer evening, it's almost possible to think that life is returning to normal: flowers are blooming, tourists and tennis players are drifting about, family groups sit picnicking on the grass. It's London and it's lovely.
Arriving at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, one of the most beautiful permanent open-air settings for drama in the land, pulls you up short. The magical woodlands are still there but the place is as sterile and socially-distanced as a hospital waiting room.
The contrast creates a disjunct between the pleasure of being in a theatrically-familiar setting to see a live show, and the reality theatres are up against in trying to get going again under the government's Covid-secure guidelines. Since there are just 390 of us in a space designed for more than a 1,000 it feels oddly empty.
So it is enormously to the credit of this production, revived and pared back by director Timothy Sheader from his previous award-winning version that has already enjoyed runs at this venue and the Barbican, that within moments of its beginning you entirely forget the strangeness of the situation and are completely engrossed in the staging.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical about the last days of Jesus Christ might in fact have been designed for these times. Because it started life as a rock album, and because its roots and its power are in the complexity of the driving rock score (one of Lloyd Webber's very best) and the wit and rigour of Rice's unbeatable lyrics, it doesn't actually need much staging.
What it requires is a cast who can sing every note, wringing meaning and passion from the musical's relentless trajectory from hippy-go-lucky idealism to a fateful and fated crucifixion. That is absolutely what it gets here, from a cast without a weak link and so seeped in the show from being part of the earlier productions that it seems to emerge naturally and without effort.
In the leading roles, pairs are alternating throughout the six-week run. I saw the award-winning Tyrone Huntley as a sensationally agonised Judas, making every note count and each word resonate. He has the remarkable gift of taking lyrics and turning them into dialogue, so that songs never lose their sense and shape. Maimuna Memon brings similar directness to Mary, avoiding turning "I Don't Know How To Love Him" into a simple power ballad, she sings with a tender truth that makes it a revelation of character as well as of mood. And as a guitar strumming, baseball-cap-wearing Jesus Declan Bennett is both convincingly intense and suitably agonised, bringing the small house down with "Gethsemane". But everyone's terrific from Shaq Taylor's Herod, fabulous in satin and a flouncy white dressing gown, to David Thaxton's furious Pilate, to Ivan De Freitas's chilling, deep-toned Caiaphas.
Yet if the production draws its deep strength from the power of its performances, it is infinitely more than a concert; it feels like a full-realised staging, on Tom Scutt's clever adaptation of Soutra Gilmour's set for Evita that was in place when theatres went dark. The socially-distanced separation of the chorus on the banks of bleachers increases the sense of isolation that both Judas and Jesus experience as the mood grows darker; the virtual kiss is all the more moving for being stylised.
Drew McOnie's clever choreography loses none of its expressive creativity by being concentrated on the spot rather than spreading across the stage, Lee Curran's lighting, with great white and yellow shafts and beams emerging smokily from the gathering gloom, is wonderfully evocative and the band, under the direction of Tom Deering sounds great.
All in all, this return to live performance – which can also be enjoyed via a big screen on the grass – produced against countless odds, feels like a triumph and a blessing.