Ian McIntosh as Jesus being arrested by the sinister masked guards.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Birmingham Hippodrome


What a phenomenal piece of theatre, spectacular, vibrant and unashamedly fusing rock and opera into a glorious visual and musical feast.

The vocals are stunning, the brilliant ensemble and demanding choreography (Drew McOnie) up there with the very best, the design (Tom Scutt) and lighting (Lee Curran) spectacular and inventive and the interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s 1960’s inspired rock opera exceptional.

This is a revival of the 2016 landmark Olivier Award winning Regent’s Park Open Air theatre production, a production which took a record breaking 1971 musical which was starting to show its age and antecedents, and brought it bang up to date, with director Timothy Sheader performing his own theatrical miracle.

It opens on a blacked-out stage and a soaring guitar solo from Felix Stickland in the excellent nine piece band under musical director Michael Riley.

As he plays the stage starts to come alive, banks of lights appear, actors enter and we finally hear the familiar sound of Jesus Christ Superstar, let the story begin . . .

Ian McIntosh’s Jesus is initially low key, baffled, even embarrassed to be seen as a leader and is being derided for consorting with Mary Magdalene – the significance being that it was stated that she was a prostitute by a Pope without any hint of proof and almost certainly wrongly, some 600 years after the crucifixion. Jesus’s reply being along the lines that we are all God’s children.

On Press night Mary was played by Louise Francis, an understudy, not that you would have known, she made the part her own packing her big number, I don’t know how to love him, with a lifetime of emotion.

Shem Omari James is a nervous sort of Judas. While Jesus is a fairly laid back messiah, almost uncomfortable at the attention, Judas is a fanatic. He might be a best mate but he is also a bit of an outsider, a watcher never more than hovering on the fringe of the group.

His betrayal of Christ with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane allied his name to every act of betrayal and treachery for evermore, yet his angst ridden anthem in Judas’s Death has always raised a theological question. If God’s plan was always the crucifixion of Jesus then Judas was always an integral part of the plan, a victim labelled ever more as a traitor, who was merely conned into doing God’s will.


A tortured, bloody Jesus with Shem Omari James as the spirit of Judas questioning if this was all a divine plan

He was paid 30 pieces of silver for his betrayal, and it was directorial genius to have him reach into the casket of cash and emerge with his hands covered in silver, like Lady Macbeth’s spot, a constant reminder of what he had done.

His death is cleverly done as well. Judas hanged himself from a tree, represented by stylised branches high towards the flies, and the drop of a microphone left hanging on its lead tells its own story with Judas high on the set fading into the darkness.

Ryan O’Donnell is a leather clad Pilate, and Pilate’s Dream dilemma sets the tone of the subsequent downfall of Jesus with Pilate wanting nothing to do with a local squabble between the Jewish religious establishment and a Galilean Jew. His hand is eventually forced by frustration at what he sees as Jesus’s refusal to save himself.

His accusers are led by the priests Annas (Matt Bateman) and Caiaphas (Jad Habchi) displaying an ominous presence and an incredible vocal range in the case of Jad.

They are hoping Herod, not the earlier dubious baby sitting service one incidentally, can put an end to the Jesus movement but the rather camp king, minced by Timo Tatzber added an amusing interlude with Herod's Song but no solution to the priests’ problems

The treatment of Jesus once arrested is brutal and the 39 lashes suffered by him are strangely painful to watch, showing both the power of suggestion and inspired direction.

There is a nod to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper as Jesus sets the basic tenet of the Christian faith, the Holy Communion of bread and wine, in his final meal with his 12 disciples, their table being a cross shaped catwalk dominating the centre of the stage.

He tells them one of them will betray him, only adding to Judas’s anguish God has made him the fall guy, and that one will deny him three times – all denied but when Christ is arrested Darius J James’ guitar toting Peter denies ever knowing Jesus, or being with him or being one of his followers. 

Both Jesus and Peter take to acoustic guitars at times, perhaps to add a sort a travelling troubadour vibe, rather than zealous tent evangelism.

As time passes we see McIntosh’s Jesus grow into the role destiny has chosen for him and when he sings Gethsemene, questioning God as to why he has to die, why him, with all his fears exposed we really do feel for him - dying a cruel death for a cause he cannot understand.

The crucifixion is a solemn affair as we hear the familiar cries from Jesus of “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, all interspersed with laughter by a crowd baying for his death, contrasting with the crowd earlier singing his praises and clamouring to be healed. Finally comes the final cry “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” The clamour and laughter ends in shocked silence.

For Jesus, and the musical, it is the end, for Christianity, merely the beginning. It is a telling touch to have the body of Jesus taken down from the cross where he reunites on an empty stage with his friend Judas.

The set is bleak and industrial, devoid of colour, skeletal with a pair of two storey blocks either side of the catwalk with the band hidden away on the top floor while the lighting picks out important moments and gives the effect of searchlights that can act almost as prison bars from above and searching for targets from below, adding to the drama.

And as for the ensemble – it is rare to see a group as co-ordinated and good as this. McConie’s brilliant choreography is complex and demanding, adding to each scene and must be exhausting for the superb cast - all worthy of their own star billing. A nod as well to the clever use of hand held mics, especially on the staffs of the priests.

It is more than half a century since I first saw the musical, I’ve seen it on stage, on screen and even the arena tour a dozen years ago which split the crowd.

This production has taken up the baton and run with it, keeping the faith but modernising it giving us soul, gospel and rock with real operatic overtones in a 21st century version of the greatest story ever told. To 27-04-24.

Roger Clarke


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