A review by Bernie Whelan for EXTRA! EXTRA!





Conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak

Music and New Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

Directed by Michael Strassen

Musical direction by Michael Bradley

Union Theatre

15 April - 7 May 2011



The programme for this production opens with a note from the director which says 'I'd like to think a Baptist or Richard Dawkins could watch this 21st century production and be moved and walk away a slightly better person'. The nod to scientific atheism opens the play, with the voice of Stephen Hawking calling life into being as the God of Genesis. This appeal to a humanist evangelism acknowledges the central problem for a revival of Godspell. The original show hit the wave of 1970’s American youth counterculture, heeding the call to turn off the demands for conformity from their parents and 'the man', tune in to peace and love and drop out of the rat race. There was a perhaps, naive optimism about changing society through lifestyle politics, but an openness to new ideas gave this show real resonance.

Godspell retells The Gospel as the story of a group of hip young people searching for meaning whose leader comes up against authority and is killed by the state. After the shooting of student peace protesters in the Kent State massacre of 1970 this would have had real contemporary resonance. However, to a generation born and raised in the 21st century era of cynical mistrust, particularly of anyone who believes in anything, Godspell's central message of the human need for community may never have been more relevant, but also, like the seed that fell on stony soil, it has very little chance of taking root.

It doesn't help that the loose, improvisational, happy clappy Sesame Street style retelling of the parables struggle to include reference points for the 'yoof' of today and get them all wrong, according to my student daughter. The mention of Justin Bieber, the beat-boxing and imitation of Golem's voice from Lord of The Rings (Daryl Armstrong) along with a vignette of Mrs Overall (Jill Armour) appeared artificial and forced and was therefore toe-curling, although well executed by the cast. Jesus (Billy Cullum) was a dead ringer for pop-star Mika and Robin (Natalie Green) looked and sang like Lea Michele from the TV series Glee. This was obviously the model, a rethinking of Godspell as a kind of Glee Club for today's audience. The cast of young, talented performers, four boys and four girls, gave all they had so their enthusiasm and emotional commitment were irresistibly winning. Sophie Issacs' cheeky comic delivery and gutsy singing on 'O Bless the Lord' was a particular favourite with the audience. Natalie Green's gospel style singing on 'Day by Day' was worthy of any soul diva. Caroline Hubbard led the cast in 'By My Side', a beautiful melodic song which captivated the audience because it wasn't belted out like many of the other songs, with her voice gradually including others who emerged with lighted candles. Iwan Lewis was the strongest of the male singers, while Jeremy Batt was the most energetic, with a tap dance routine that looked as exhausting as it probably was. Jesus' irritatingly repetitive admonishment to 'Leave It!' marked him out as the teacher, while the swearing by other members of the cast was particularly unfortunate - it sounded completely unnatural and was therefore excruciatingly embarrassing. The 'black box' style set and casual GAP clothing of the cast gave an improvised feel to the performance. The live band were hidden behind a black curtain and did not appear, even to receive applause after the rather histrionic 'Yes, we can' finale.

In spite of these miss-firings, it did feel as though they had established a strong group loyalty and the show was genuinely moving when Jesus said his goodbyes, not least because they all cried real tears on stage, no doubt hard to do night after night. The central message of inclusiveness extended even to poor old Judas (Davis Brooks) who only did what he had to do to fulfill the scriptures after all.

Union Theatre
204 Union St, London SE1 0LX
Tues - Sat: 7:30pm, Sat/Sun: 3pm
Tickets £16, Concs £13
Box Office: 020 7261 9876

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