Music and New Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Director: Matt Devitt
Musical Director: Julian Littman
Reviewer: Michael Gray
Somewhere between Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar there was Godspell, a free-love, feel-good take on St Matthew with some pretty good songs.
Matt Devitt’s bold re-staging almost convinces that it’s worth reviving. The playground is now a grungy concrete wilderness, skateboard ramp, wire fences and graffiti which includes some sneaky sacred imagery – plus of course a keyboard and drum-kit for the actor/musicians who power the show. The clowns are now random performers, in hoodies for the opening, where the philosophers and thinkers (plus L Ron Hubbar) are googled, kicking off with an Essex-accented Socrates.
Musically the show sounds superb (the MD is Julian Littman), with a super-charged rock-rhythmic pulse for the noisy numbers, and, just as effective, simple guitar accompaniment for the more reflective moments, like The Willows, or By My Side, a survival from the original stateside student entertainment that started it all. Wisely, the crosstalk vaudeville All For The Best remains unrevised, and is brilliantly delivered. Only Turn Back O Man disappoints – superbly sung, but it really needs a slinky chanteuse to make sense of the style.
The show is eager to please, with its naïve joy in the word of the Lord, but can seem predictable with each parable acted out with naïve enthusiasm, and one clap-along worship song after another.
So Devitt skilfully keeps things fresh with constant clever touches: the hypocrites in a supermarket trolley, the water into wine, George Formby and his ukulele as Abraham, Alan Sugar as the rich man – nice to think he’ll never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And, alongside all the cartoonish New Testament characters and the sketch-show acting, there are moments of real reflection. The prog-rock crucifixion, red ribbons against the wire fence, foreshadowed in the Baptist’s washing of Christ’s out-stretched arms, is followed by the simple sincerity of the Deposition. We are left with a more typically upbeat finale, of course, All You Need Is Love on the screens, the audience clapping along to the Megamix medley.
Wonderfully outgoing performances from these ten actor/musicians; Queen’s newcomers Patrick Burbridge and Deborah Hewitt impress instrumentally, too, on guitar and violin. Sean Needham is a darkly powerful presence as Judas, and also John the Baptist in the opening sequence, in which Sam Kordbacheh’s Messiah is discovered wrapped in a blanket. His Jesus radiates intensity and love – a very charismatic figurehead for a cult.
The original Godspell struck a chord, on both sides of the Atlantic, with the generation who went to Sunday School in the 50s and to college in the revolutionary 60s. Does it have any resonance today, when the cynical Book of Mormon is our West End view of religion ? Or, even in this joyous, fresh reworking, is it just a crowd-pleasing sequence of songs and sketches?
Runs until June 7th
Photo Nobby Clark