Review - Jesus Christ Superstar revived at the Barbican

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The hippy tribal rock musical Hair may have ushered in a brand-new age for musicals when it originally premiered Off-Broadway in 1967, but it was the British-born Jesus Christ Superstar, first released as a best-selling concept album three years later, that utterly transformed the landscape. The show's 1972 London stage premiere (a year after a different version had opened on Broadway) would become the longest-running West End musical in history (until it was overtaken in turn by Lloyd Webber's Cats and now Les Miserables).

Whereas Hair these days seems pretty dated - though the score is an enduring melodic pleasure - Jesus Christ Superstar is now a seemingly timeless masterpiece. Here is a familiar story - the deification, then betrayal and execution of Jesus Christ, set to an alternately pounding and lyrical rock score that, nearly fifty years later, still feels thrillingly vivid and sensationally alive.

And, as staged with the breath-taking panache of a modern rock show by director Timothy Sheader and his invaluable choreographer Drew McOnie, it erupts with joy, heartache, panache, daring and inventiveness.

This industrial-looking production - which has giant steel girders enfolding a platform for the live band to perform on and two fallen beams forming a crucifix on the stage itself - was first seen at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in 2016 and then revived there in 2017, where it seemed like a spontaneous happening, with McOnie's raw, jagged choreography feeling entirely organic: yet, of course, it was and is meticulously planned and brilliantly executed.

Now transferred indoors to the Barbican Theatre, its energy feels a little more constrained - even on a stage as high and wide as this one, which can't reach to heaven itself as the outdoor version does. Nor can naturally occurring darkness add its own brand of magic outdoors as the evening draws in towards the show's own overpoweringly powerful ending, though Lee Curran's blazing rock lighting has its own extraordinary effects.

But there's still a pulsating theatrical energy and galvanising charge to the show, from the utterly ferocious playing of Ed Bussey's band to an astonishingly committed company, that make this one of the most sensorially and aurally ravishing musicals in town.

Robert Tripolino cuts a sweetly open and physically slight figure as Jesus, with Ricardo Alfonso as the more robust Judas, whose betrayal (and soaring vocals) ignite the drama.

There's also stunning support from Matt Cardle as a conscious-stricken Pilate, Gavin Cornwall as a deep-voiced Caiaphas, Nathan Amzi as a physically-imposing Annas, and Samuel Buttery as the scene-stealing Herod who resembles a giant gold bauble, wrapped in a fantastically overblown golden lamé drape.

Jesus Christ Superstar still has the power to thrill and even more to surprise. This unmissable staging does both.

Jesus Christ Superstar is at the Barbican until 24th August. 

Jesus Christ Superstar tickets are available now. 

Originally published on

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