Lyceum Theatre, London WC2
Opened 19 November, 1996

The show which truly put Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber on the musical map in the 1970s is now the cause of the Lyceum Theatre's return as a permanent West End venue after half a century. This is a big event, but then Lloyd Webber seems to have decreed that everything about his shows is now to be a big event By Jeeves succeeds largely by dint of Alan Ayckbourn's unstinting efforts in forbidding such an approach.

In the Lyceum, however, we get the works. John Napier's set of timber and masonry, grilles and gas jets, looks somewhere between a derelict colosseum and a catacomb; as the performing ensemble extends around the auditorium on walkways, so the audience penetrates the stage from precarious galleries at the rear. Richard Ryan's sound design is loud... and I say this as one who once fell asleep three feet in front of the speakers at a Glenn Branca electric-guitar symphony performance. Under Simon Lee's musical direction, guitars do not quite approach Branca-esque aggression, but the occasional nod is made to Eddie Van Halen, and at one point I am certain the instrument's tone painstakingly reproduces that of Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner".

For this, let it not be forgotten, is a pop opera. And, refreshing as it is to hear Lloyd Webber working with more straightforward chord changes (albeit in self-consciously unusual time signatures), the years have not been kind to it. What was once mould-breaking is now musically and lyrically slight and dated. Recognising as much, the creative team applies huge production values to buoy the show up.

It does not work. David Hersey's lighting design settles after the interval into a tedious sameness of gloom slashed by spotlights (except at the moment of Jesus's death, when instead of "darkness over all the earth" a great white light momentarily blazes); almost without exception Gale Edwards's direction makes obvious choices, strong in overall vision but losing its advantage through an equal and opposite laxity concerning individual performances and moments. Steve Balsamo's tall, slim, Celtic Jesus is opposed by Zubin Varla's squat, sinisterly foreign Judas and a King Herod (Nick Holder) who suggests an inflatable Richard O'Brien. Jesus's and Judas's vocal scores respectively serve as a reminder that, at the time of composition, the world's hottest male vocalists were Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple's Ian Gillan. However, Balsamo turns in a wonderful performance on Act Two's solo "Gethsemane"; laurels, too, for the fifty-megaton bass voice of Steve Fortune as Caiaphas.

This revival has to compete with shows (including Lloyd Webber's own other works) which are more able to bear the weight of these opulent trappings and still remain more or less upright beneath them. However, it has been commanded to be a sensation, and since more is deemed to be better, this is how it is made sensational. My own, rather less strong, response was unexpectedly mirrored by a final bemusing touch of stagecraft. To signify the mortal departure of Christ's glory from this earth, behold, a not especially mighty drizzle covers the land.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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