The Rice-Lloyd Webber machine has done it again. This revival of Joseph is raking it in, having assured itself of success with an army of ready-made fans through the BBC’s Any Dream Will Do search for a new West End Star. Indeed last night’s auditorium was packed full of ten-year-old girls who were cheering long before the curtain even went up. So much so that it’s already taken in an estimated £10 million at the box office and has extended booking through to next June, and the thought is enough to make me feel quite queasy.
The general look and feel of the production is more suited for a school production than the West End; the set is cheap and most of the props and costumes look like they came from a charity shop. However, the visual gaudiness is nothing compared to the tedious repetitive tunes; much of the music sounding as though it was pre-recorded on one of those child-friendly electric pianos. Some of the songs also sounded suspiciously similar to those that had been playing in the Adelphi not so long ago for Evita.
The writing provides classic lines such as “some are lucky, some are not,” or “Joseph’s coat annoyed his brothers,” which must have taken hours to come up with; literary genius this is not. In fact, it’s nowhere close with one song almost entirely composed of numerous repetitions of the colours found in the coat while another number just tells us again and again how Joseph is “ahead of his time” although he most clearly is not. In truth, the two hits the musical is famed for: “Any Dream Will Do” and “Close Every Door to Me” were the only mildly passable ones. Even the background dancers were out of synch making the show amateur on every account.
On top of the mind-numbing repetitions, there were moments of pure randomness, complete which a chance seeing of the London Eye, a John Lennon moment and most peculiarly, for some strange reason during the second half the brothers all suddenly developed thick French accents. The certifiably insane would feel right at home watching this. Ironically, the zombie clap-along audience had selected the best thing about the show: Lee Mead’s Joseph is the one redeeming quality in the production. His voice is rich and strong but having said that, he spent most of the evening smiling beatifically which made him look like an imbecile but I suppose that is needed for a character that has a slightly disturbing obsession with a coloured coat. On the plus side, Mead is not without charm and the girls in the audience went wild whenever he appeared, especially, of course, when in his loin-cloth. In terms of cast, the talent seems to stop there. The narrator, practically the only female character, played by Preeya Kalidas, was stiff, had no personality, and couldn’t reach the high notes. The brothers looked like the product of inbreeding, their makeup being particularly horrific. As the characters have no depth whatsoever we can neither side with Joseph, an arrogant, spoilt brat or the brothers, greedy and obscene. Dean Collinson playing an Elvis-Pharoah who provided a moment of much-needed genuine comedy but unfortunately, like everything else, his number was dragged on for so long that it lost all its original wit.
The children’s choral, on stage throughout, were the only genuinely heart-warming thing about the production, although I worry about their long-term mental health and imagine they will suffer from the terrible fate of having these melodies stuck in their heads for the next 20 years.
Although the second half picked up slightly, all the songs still sounded the same and by this time the 10 year olds singing along next to me had started to seriously grate. While Lloyd-Webber has a gift for the pastiche, this play has passed it’s sell-by-date, the campness no longer feels fresh, and the religious story is old fashioned and out of place. The only moment that felt at all exciting was the finale re-hashing of the songs into a “mega mix,” partly because this was a genuine 80’s throwback and the actors all showed more life and energy than in any of the previous scenes and partly because it meant it was finally ending. I left regretting the two and a half hours of my life I will never get back and am quite certain that not only did I lose a significant number of brain cells but also a large part of my sanity in the process.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "It offers a seductive blend of camp, kitsch." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Lee Mead ...Lacking in character and with a tendency to give out towards the end of a line, his voice is not the world's greatest...But Mead more than fulfils the requirements, with a mop of dark curls, a wholesome, sweet manner, and a way of filling a pleated loincloth that will appeal to all sexes...A Joseph virgin, I enjoyed myself far more than I thought possible at a Lloyd Webber show." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The late Steven Pimlott's 1991 Palladium production...had a heart and soul whereas everything about this revival seems either cutesy, camp or calculated." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Lee Mead...turns out to be both talented and enthusiastic...With spoofs of country music, calypso and even Piaf added to the mix, the show is a reminder of how splendidly versatile Lloyd Webber can be. Nor has Rice written jauntier lyrics." LISA MARTLAND for THE STAGE says, "Rice and Lloyd Webber’s score remains as infectious as ever." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Lee Mead...looks good in a loin cloth, and has a powerful and expressive voice...By the end, however his vocals were beginning to sound a touch frayed."
Production photos by Tristram Kenton