Way, way back, many centuries ago (or so it feels), Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was a pleasant, inoffensive apprentice piece by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Over the years, its theatrical edifice underwent extensive refurbishment and had several new wings tacked on, until 1991's West End opening unveiled what Sir Andrew would like us to regard as the definitive version. This latest London run is ostensibly of that same production, but it is now coarsened and overplayed to the point of persistent irritation.
Original 1991 director Steven Pimlott was adroit at taking the mickey out of both this show in particular and the idea of musical spectaculars in general, but without evidencing any scorn for the piece; he took his job seriously, but not earnestly. Similarly, Mark Thompson's design – right down to the singing animatronic camel – was imbued with a spirit of fun which just avoided tipping over into derision. Five years and a succession of resident directors down the line (the latest being Wayne Fowkes), Joseph has become a circus.
Brothers Reuben (Sam Hiller) and Simeon (Graham Martin) so ham up their respective numbers – the Country & Western lollop of "One More Angel In Heaven" and the Gallic boulevard lament "Those Canaan Days" – that all you hear are the mannerisms, not the songs themselves; Chris Holland's Pharaoh is not so much a clone of Elvis as of Shane Ritchie. Ria Jones as the Narrator has a disconcertingly versatile voice: in the intimate numbers she sounds (and simpers) like Julie Andrews, but when (as most of the time) she belts, her high notes resemble sheet metal being sheared. Jones seizes her chance of stardom with both hands, several grappling hooks and a vat of Evo-Stik, shimmying with the vapid charm of a morning TV presenter through even such inappropriate scenes as the brothers' conspiracy to murder Joseph.
The sole exception to all this crass excess is, remarkably, Phillip Schofield as Joseph. His television persona stands him in excellent stead here: he enjoys being a bit silly, whether timidly trying to attract Pharaoh's attention or snake-wrestling in a pit, but his japery is always in the service of the show rather than at its expense. Schofield's singing voice is not terrific – his phrasing frequently betrays either breath problems or a touch of the club-singer – but it is eminently serviceable, and the sheer matiness of his performance transcends such failings in this context.
However, one man's star quality is not enough to redeem the production. Lloyd Webber's determination to make a full show out of the original (little more than a chamber piece) has led to gratuitous reprises, bolted-on verses and numbers, a blatantly programmed encore and the "Joseph Megamix", as tawdry and unnecessary today as ever and pretty dated to boot after only five years. The additions after the final curtain proper, along with logistical difficulties in shepherding an Apollo-sized audience into their pens for each half, make the evening almost an hour longer than it ought to be. (À propos Lloyd Webber's control of the show, note too the 30-year-old programme biography and picture of Tim Rice: friendly joke or calculated insult?)
If what you want is a spectacular with a capital S fronted by a family personality, this Joseph fills the bill in spades, but be aware that you are buying not an evening in a theatre but a media commodity.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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