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March 13 2019, Reviews The David Beach Competition

Jesus Christ Superstar

21st Century Production

St. Mary’s Church

Bridgwater

Thursday 7th March 2019

In our consciousness as a rock opera since 1970 and as a story for, well about two thousand years, the narrative of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is familiar to most: it’s a great tale. Also, being of a certain age myself, I like the 70s rock music imposed on it by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s sharply crafted lyrics. I have seen the show a good many times, delivered with varying degrees of success and was fascinated to see how 21st Century Production would fare staging it in a church.

On the surface ‘JCS’ might seem a ‘shoo-in’ for most Christian establishments but looking a little deeper, the one crucial element missing from the show is the Resurrection, one of the major tenets of Christian faith: in the show everything ends with the Crucifixion. Having said that, the local Church authority in Bridgwater must have accepted this and made the frankly splendid, St. Mary’s available. As it happened, this was something of a ‘coup’ for 21st Century as, a few sight-line issues excepted, it worked well as a venue.

Staged in the centre of the Crossing between North and South Transepts, almost ‘in the round’, the audience was very close to the action indeed. A few rows of chairs formed a semi-circle around the main acting space and further rows were placed slightly further back, admittedly causing some degree of difficulty in seeing all of the action, which happened at floor level. I stood at the side from time to time to catch as much as I could. Actors moved amongst the audience almost continually, giving us a strong sense of being involved.

Simon Boddy’s direction worked well. The cast was mostly fairly young, in keeping with the ages the Apostles might have been and the level of engagement, focus and energy was almost palpable. Pace was rapid and exciting when required yet softer and gentler as appropriate. Clever use of the entire building: entrances and exits made through and around the audience and the appearance or several characters from the Apse was very effective. Eyelines and links between and amongst the players were powerfully maintained and many impressive, small details of performance were apparent due to the proximity of the audience to those players. Small, haunting examples for me were the expression of cruel enjoyment on the face of the guards as they beat Jesus prior to his crucifixion and the subtle dismissal by Judas of the printed propaganda the Disciples had distributed to many audience members. There was a cohesion of the team which suggested to me a thoroughly ‘workshopped’ rehearsal process.

Performances were good. There are some very strong singers in this group both individually and as an ensemble. Ben Filer stood out as Judas, as did Sam Howes as Simon and Jessica Godfrey as Mary. Simon Boddy took the lead role as JC and (without wanting to upset him) once we had ignored the suggestion that Jesus was just thirty-three at the time of the story, he demonstrated his real quality as a performer. Amongst many strong performances I also particularly enjoyed Alison Houselander’s very original (and funny) ‘take’ on Herod and Matthew Dearsley’s Pilate. Dance and movement were strong, motivated and very watchable.

Lighting was very impressive for this production: reasonably simple plots, often of just one or two colours, worked very well indeed. The timing of changes was spot-on and some of the simple but effective single-colour ‘washes’ of the Apse were spectacular. Sound was, especially when considering the extremely ‘live’ acoustic of St Mary’s, pretty effective. The balance between the mic’d performers and recorded backing track was noticeably better for the second act: I am assuming something of a learning curve for the operators as the acoustic changed when an audience arrived on the scene? There was an unfortunate moment when Mary’s mic decided to fail at the opening of the lovely ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ but she coped magnificently, and few would have noticed (these things happen in live shows).

Overall this was a very enjoyable evening’s entertainment. Perfect? Well, not quite – I happen to be extremely familiar with the libretto so had no problem deciphering all of the words- I am not sure all of the audience would have the same experience and those sight lines were not good. I wonder if a platform (just half a meter high) in the centre might have been useful. Having said this, I had a great time. This felt like a group of people really working together to deliver the very best they could and giving a great sense of honesty in performance. Nothing more could be asked of them.

 

Thanks for inviting me

 

Ian