Review: Tim Minchin in Jesus Christ Superstar

By Steve Bennett at the O2 Arena

Is there any area of performance Tim Minchin can’t do expertly well? Comedian, songwriter and now standout musical star. I bet he could juggle fire-breathing chimps if the role demanded it...

He’s not a stranger to musicals, of course. Long before he co-wrote Matilda, or even became a comedy star, he toured in his native Australia in Amadeus. But there are several orders of magnitude between the Perth Theatre Company and Jesus Christ Superstar at the O2 Arena.

While all 32,000 eyes might have been on newcomer Ben Forster – chosen as the Messiah in an ITV talent show - Minchin stole the show as Judas, encapsulating the rage. rebellion and remorse this complex and demanding role requires.

Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s 1970 classic has been dragged into the present day for this month-long arena tour. Riots and the Occupy movement become a movement of civil unrest led by the charismatic Jesus and monitored on Big Brother CCTV by Pontius Pilate; What’s The Buzz? becomes an anthem for Twitter, the Temple a pumping techno nightclub and King Herod’s decision over Christ’s fate an X-Factor-style phone-in.

The updating makes so much sense it’s almost simplistically obvious – at least in retrospect after director Laurence Connor has done it. And what an astonishing job he’s done in making it relevant, even gritty, with the giant screen background providing bold, contemporary graphics, close-ups of the singers, and a seamless backdrop to the basic stage set.

In this context Minchin, his trademark wild hair braided into dreads, looks every inch the idealist anarchist, concerned at the distractions he thinks are keeping Jesus from their true revolutionary work. For his part, Forster looks – and sounds – like he’s been on the West End stage for a lifetime, and never more in the emotionally supercharged Gethsemane, when Jesus accepts his fate.

How strong is this production? Well, its able to make Chris Moyles look good. In his single ragtime number as Herod, resplendent in bold red suit, he uses the perfect mix of smarm, wit and verve. It’s a big performance, but then this is a big show for a big venue.

Which again is why Minchin stands out, able to convey tricksy, fast lyrics above the decibels of the fine band and subtle emotion over the vibrant spectacle of the production. His suicide is yet another heart-rending moment in what turns out to be surprisingly moving second half.

As Mary Magdalene, former Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm is generally more subdued than you might expect; while the bad-guys oozed charisma - both Peter Gallagher as the sinister Caiaphas and Alexander Hanson as world-weary Pilate.

This production of Jesus Christ Superstar might prove too brash and loud for some tastes - certainly some tender moments are lost – but it’s a rock musical, and has been suitably souped-up for the arenas that are now part of the rock landscape, the comedy landscape, and now the musical theatre landscape too.

Published: 24 Sep 2012

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