jcs cast

Judas Iscariot, played by Alex Nicholls, at the rear in his mustard scarf under the stage dominating cross behind a cast of disciples and followers. Pictures: Pamela Raith

Jesus Christ Superstar

Lichfield Garrick Young Rep Musical

Lichfield Garrick

First century Galilee and Judea must have been desolate places in this dystopian vision of the Holy Land from Lichfield Garrick.

The stage is bleak, devoid of colour, with a band on two platforms of scaffolding, drums and bass one side, keyboard and guitar the other, flanking a huge cross of lights, 20 by 20 which could glow or blind in dramatic moments.

The cast, 28 strong, on stage all the time, are all dressed in identical grey overalls with identical toolbelts – an army of uniformity as if 1984 has clashed with the New Testament, the greatest story ever told related by a totalitarian regime.

There are subtle differences you pick up as you go along, the 12 apostles, for instance, have goggles on their heads, as does, rather incongruously, Mary Magdalene, who also has a purple scarf in her hair.

The donning of jackets, one red, one blue, give us Caiaphas, the high priest of all Israel, and Annus, his father-in-law and a fellow priest, who see Jesus as a threat to the established order, while a long green coat distinguishes Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea, when he emerges from the grey masses.

Alfie Kentesbar enjoys himself as the high priest, with a fine deep voice to match, complimented by Dan McClosky as not so much father-in-law as sidekick, plotting the death of the so called Messiah, the upstart from the country yokels of Nazareth threatening the more cosmopolitan order of Jerusalem in Judea.

Ashely Laight, meanwhile, gives us the dark thoughts of Pilate with Pilate’s Dream as he relates his vision of the Galilean, Jesus, a dream foretelling how he will be blamed for his death. In his interrogation of the arrested Jesus his fine voice shows light and dark shades of power and emotion in his dramatic attempts to find reasons to spare the life of the man they call King of the Jews.

Being from Galilee, which was not, on paper at least, under Roman control, Pilate tries to pass the buck and first sent Jesus to be dealt with by Herod, ruler of that northern region, sung with a smile and some style by Arthur Ellis, who has more fun than Caiaphas with his up-tempo, music hall style King Herod’s Song.


Genevieve Richards as the eponymous Superstar surrounded by followers

But it is Ellie May Quinn’s Mary Magdalene, the most loyal follower of Jesus, who popular culture still erroneously refers to as a prostitute, who steals the show with her glorious singing of I don’t know how to love him. It is quite stunning, a real goose bumps performance which deserved its rousing reception.

Another star was Alex Nicholls as Judas Iscariot, distinguished by a mustard scarf, who acts as a sort of narrator, in much the same way as Che in the later Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, Evita, relating the events of the last week of Jesus’s life.

He has a fine voice and manages a decent falsetto when needed, although the transition between the two is not always easy, which is no reflection on him, merely the simple fact that a male singing voice doesn’t really mature until the singer is in their late 20s and into their 30s.

I was unsure about the staging of what is the most interesting theological concept of the rock opera, which comes after Judas’s betrayal of Christ with a kiss in the garden of Gethsemane.

Seeing how Christ is treated, seeing what is to become of him, Judas launches into an emotive argument with God as, now the villain of the piece, with a traitor to be called a Judas for evermore, he decides to hang himself, angry that he has been made to do God’s bidding, that he was always going to be an unwitting part of God’s plan, manipulated beyond his control, used and then discarded.

It is a lonely cry of despair from a man ostracised, knowing he will be reviled for the rest of time. Yet all that anguish, his cries and anger at God,  his scene of total desolation is lost in the distraction of being manhandled by the rest of the cast like a scene in some Hieronymus Bosch painting.

Which of course brings us to the eponymous figure himself, or in this case, herself, Jesus. Perhaps there is a dearth of young men who can sing in Lichfield, I don’t know, but for me, and a number of the audience members I overheard, it didn’t work.

For a start every song refers to him, his, man, even son of God, and it was only Ellie May Quinn’s superb singing of I don’t know how to love him that stopped you wondering if Mary Magdalene had been off school the day they did sexes in biology at Nazareth Tech.

Which is no criticism of Genevieve Richards, she was chosen for the role, and she made the most of it. Her big number is Gethsemane as Jesus, knowing his fate will be death on the cross, awaits arrest, and she sings it with real, heartfelt emotion bringing well deserved applause.

Even here though, we have the incongruous line Could you ask as much from any other man?. The story might not have changed but the dynamics certainly have.

She was also convincing in the final moments of Jesus on the cross, as, life ebbing away she cries quietly, “It is finished, Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” To be left alone as for the first time we have an empty stage, a beautifully worked dramatic moment.


A beaten. flogged Jesus with, right, Ellie May Quinn's loyal Mary Magdalene with followers now baying for blood

Again, though, one of the more poignant moments of the Christian story was lost amid the heaving mass of people on stage as Genevieve’s Christ conducts the first communion of bread and wine at the last supper. It should be a poignant moment, the basis of the Christian sacrament of flesh and blood, but here it was less like Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated painting and more like serving drinks 10 deep at the nearest pub to Villa Park after a home match.

Again, no criticism of the cast, who only ever looked like a mob when that was what they were supposed to be, a rabble howling for the crucifixion of Jesus. Their movement was fluid, well-rehearsed and the singing was outstanding in what is not the easiest choral score, a credit to both choreographer Denise Orton-Brown and musical director Rob Murray.

The stark set designed by Connie Watson, who also designed the costumes, is minimalist while the use of brightly coloured jackets stood out as beacons among the otherwise drab cast, automatically giving importance to the characters.

There is also interesting use of four flight cases to create tables, platforms and even a sort of catwalk for Pilate. Simple props to give life and variety on an empty stage.

A mention too for the band with Murray on keyboard, Kyle Allen on drums, Laurie Olphin on bass and the excellent Steve Sheldon on guitar – a nod here as well to Martin Pritchard’s sound design. The Garrick’s in-house head of sound ensured the audio was well balanced with the band never drowning singers and clever, sparing use of echoes and effects.

Adrian Barnes’s lighting is also worth a mention, ex Birmingham Rep and Hippodrome and now freelance, he uses light to create atmosphere and drama with pin spots and follow spots and, at times, assaulting the senses of the audience with a bombardment of light.

Director Jonny McClean, in his programme notes, talks of looking at the iconic show from a different viewpoint, to reflect the real modern concerns of youth, he wanted the musical delivered as a Rebel Yell, and he has certainly done that, a production a far cry from the usual staging.

He said that the “themes of social activism, self-serving people in power and the dangers of mob mentality still feel incredibly relevant today.”.

That is what he wanted to bring out. Did it work? To be honest, not for me. I know the show well, but for newcomers, such as the group behind us, it was confusing, with the well-known story not easy to follow as a sort of ensemble piece.

I could appreciate the effort, the talent on display, even the innovation of staging the musical in a different, unconventional way, after all theatre can never stand still, it will always evolve.

This was the Garrick Young Rep Musical debut and perhaps it was aimed firmly at a young audience. Not that it wasn’t interesting, after all, every production adds something to the theatrical experience.

I may not have been enamoured by the staging, but the cast performed what they were tasked with well, with a great deal of confidence and strong leads. Among the audience, as we shuffled out, there were those unconvinced and others who loved it, so if nothing else the production offered a chance of debate - and wouldn’t theatre be boring if we all liked and disliked the same thing? You can make your own mind up to 22-02-20

Roger Clarke


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