Jesus Christ Superstar – Churchill Theatre

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lyrics by Tim Rice

Directed by Izzy Ponsford

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Locating the humanity, the extremes within the psychology of biblical figures, Jesus Christ Superstar breathes an intentional juxtaposition into politics, the church, misplaced adoration, and now gender composites. One of the most successful, indeed complicated, sung-through western musicals – Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s notorious rock-opera has never been one shy of controversy, and now forms the opening performance of the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group’s 2023 season, performed at the Churchill Theatre.

But re-staging was never enough for the EUSOG – who sought to pry open the doors of the production’s gender-specific roles, ensuring the diverse representation, and need for dusting one of the oldest (and most contentious) tomes is a valiant feat, a commendable one which finds a place chiefly amidst the leads and the apostles of Christ. Still under the constraints of the ferociously protective Really Useful Groups’ control of the script, and thus the genders of characters remain unchanged within the show, director Izzy Ponsford and creative producer Lew Forman looked to place talent and skill above archaic concerns over what’s in someone’s trousers with their gender-blind casting while maintaining the wishes of RUG.

The role of Christ, the role of a lifetime for many, is a nuanced one, which hones the mortality of the Son of God to a more relatable and human level. Stripped of their scrupulosity to offer a cleaner insight into the mortal behind the deity: a being who does take comfort in some of the better things in life and acknowledges they cannot end the entire world’s suffering – much to the irritation of Judas. Yes, that Judas.

Non-binary performer Roza Stevenson’s vocals have a (purposeful) strain and authentic element to communicate a wealth of Christ’s feelings, there’s an apathetic and placated nature which merits the peaceful and virtuous Christ. The suffering and agony of the Son of God, struggling with the onslaught of fame and expectation is captured late into the show by Stevenson’s performance and comes from their vocals over their expression – save for the finale, where the visceral nature and outcome are handled with a deafening reverence by the crowd.

Where Stevenson is at their finest and most comfortable is duets with co-star Hollie Avery or Sofia Pricolo – finding it better to work off another performer. And with the sincerity and tranquillity of Pricolo onstage, one would find it difficult not to believe that Everything’s Alright. Izzy Ponsford’s direction has a touching sincerity which does unfurl into darker and grimmer aspects later into the show. Still, for now, there’s a tenderness that she aims to get across early into the show – something Pricolo captures beautifully, and without shifting to extremes.

Just one word is enough to convey the difficulty in which Hollie Avery finds herself: Judas. The ultimate betrayer, the centre of the ninth circle of hell. Outside of, and in some cases more so than, Jesus – this is the production’s critical role. But for a moment, the price of thirty pieces of silver is all but forgiven when Avery carries the lament of Judas to the grave, with numbers of Blood Money and Judas’ Death. Her performance is pivotal to the entire story, and Avery recognises this and delivers a remorseful, and at times beautiful performance in the second act.

Not only is Avery a giftedly potent vocalist, though their enunciation struggles to battle the orchestra, their dedication to the movement and expression for the role is also engaging: Judas recognises the overwhelming hysteria Christ attracts and pushes for a return to the disciples’ charitable and social importance over cultish adoration. Shadowing, Avery lurks in the background, aware of Christ’s followers rallying for and against them. And yet, there’s an expectation to diversify the character, to demonstrate the cause and conflict within Iscariot’s mind and retain the eventual betrayal. And when Avery isn’t commanding the stage with their vocals, her expressive and emotional performance captures the atmosphere and heightens the audience’s investment.

Ponsford’s direction utilises the height of the stage to secure a fitting end for Avery, before a return, where Avery has bestowed the opportunity to let loose and ditch the rock for a more gospel note – a staggeringly emphatic voice, let down by the microphone pitching, still rings out over the audience. It’s just a tremendous shame it takes time for the audio to find harmony with Avery and other voices: by the second act it’s spot-on but the gripes at what may have missed sitting heavy in the initial act.

Though evil may not entirely win through for Judas, it sits gleefully on the stage in the eyes and actions of Caiaphas and Annas, portrayed with tremendously malevolent mirth (and excellent Bass vocals) by Theo Chevis, supported, often convinced, by the sniping and Machiavellian Kathleen Davie. The pair devours the stage when given the option – not to the level of hamming, but with an imposing presence from Chevis, and maniacal pleasure from Davis, bureaucracy lives on amidst the Pharisees.

But no one eats a stage like Herod. It’s one number and one of the key moments for the production to secure the one real moments of levity and humour with the petulant and flamboyant King. And someone put in a special order for Joey Lawson, who receives a strong response from the crowd for their extravagant and bold number, which puts the ensemble cast to great use – better than anywhere other than the Trial Before Pilate. Additional choreography is supplied by Lawson’s tap ability, allowing him the ability to provide audio reinforcement with each beat.

Renowned for its music, it’s encouraging to see Emily Bealer’s choreography streamlined into Ponsford’s direction as a bolster of character emotion and storytelling elements. The pulsating waves of plague victims swallowing Jesus into their throng or the symbolic battle of Judas’ consciousness – one side very much being stamped out by the other all work together to aid the audience’s understanding of the narrative. 

Periodically the size of the cast is too much for Churchill’s modest, though effective stage. Martha Barrow’s sound design loses control, and with so many in the orchestra pit, the audio takes tremendous knocks, throwing out the tension and importance of the words – sometimes for whole musical numbers. It’s an early teething issue, and more obvious in the show’s opening as microphones and audiences adjust – but Tim Rice’s legendary lyrics are a vital piece of the sung-through production, offering a dimension to both Jesus’ struggle and the trauma Judas puts themselves through.

The inclusion of a live band is superb – and suits the rock anthems of the show, but occasionally a guitar solo or over-zealous percussive takes precedence over the integrity of the score or the performance on-stage. It significantly causes disruption with Gordon Stackhouse’s memorably performance-orientated role as Pontius Pilate, the man with whom Christ’s fate is left. Dimensioned, reserved, but still sly and ultimately predatory, Stackhouse brings a much stronger sense of expression than the rest of the cast. The Trial Before Pilate is the initial finale, leading into the orchestral and powerful return of Judas and the apostle’s Superstar, and the musical direction here lets Stackhouse down as they constantly must fight against the strings in the band.

The contemporary testament to the diversity of art, EUSOG’s intentions to not be limited by either the boundaries of gender or increasing secular mindset are both an enormous and a small step for those involved, those witnessing, and those who have their feathers ruffled. This fact alone marks the noteworthiness of such a production. 

But vitally, Jesus Christ Superstar is a decent revitalisation of Lloyd Webber’s original, which has reformed and re-ignited the words with a new herald – a voice for non-binary audiences, unafraid to expel the dust and shackles which come with the original tale and mindset. EUSOG’s foray into one of the musical theatre’s more notoriously complex pieces proves to be, even with auditory issues, a success for both its casting and meritorious decisions. Its dissolution of the boundaries of gender, whilst carrying a splendid production, is commendable in its push towards a more accessible form of expression and theatre; a proud achievement.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs at Churchill Theatre until January 28th.

The show runs for 2 hours 30 minutes incl interval. Tuesday – Saturday at 19.30pm, and Saturday at 14.30pm.

Tickets are available from £12.50, and may be obtained here.

Photo Credit – Jacob Howorth


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