The show had sold out weeks in advance such was the anticipation and such the reputation of the show’s directors. You may be forgiven for thinking the scene described is one from London’s West End, but the show in question was, quite remarkably, a school production: the eagerly-anticipated rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.
From the very outset, the audience encountered a show with considerable impact. The ‘greatest story ever told’ was transported into the contemporary setting of modern-day Palestine, a full-size tank thrust on stage as a reminder of the conflict and religious tension that continues to this day. As we have come to expect in recent years, the set was not only striking, but brilliantly conceived.
On stage, the band kicked proceedings off with the toe-tapping overture with John Moore as Musical Director leading a stellar line-up with Alex Mason on keys, Dalton Foster (Ch U6) on guitar, Peter Chan (R L6) on drums, and the inimitable John Dover on bass. Superstar was, of course, a poignant moment as John Moore’s final production after 30 years as Director of Music, a time in which Shrewsbury School has developed a national – and indeed international – reputation for the performing arts. Working alongside our dynamic Director of Drama Helen Brown, this has been a vintage period for musical theatre. I for one am in awe of their work!
Back to the show…
The chorus burst on stage from the multiple entry points filling the stage with their vibrant attire and their swelling voices. This was a truly exceptional cast – not just the leads but the entire chorus – and early numbers ‘What’s the Buzz?’ and ‘Everything’s Alright’ conveyed the feverish activity of the disciples and followers of Jesus. Amongst their number were Simon Zealotes (one of many roles given a gender swap) played by Mary Lees (EDH L6) whose soaring voice and energy filled the Ashton Theatre from front row to back.
At the periphery – very much the outsider – the inner conflict tearing at Judas Iscariot was conveyed with expertise by seasoned performer Phoebe Morris (EDH, V) whose vocal range and expertise were perfectly suited to the role, undoubtedly one of the most challenging in the show. The fact that Phoebe had that week been struck down with tonsillitis and was dosed up with antibiotics made her performance all the more remarkable – what a superstar!
The vocal undulations required of Judas were in stark contrast to the softer – but no less striking – melodies of Mary Magdalene, with Saffron Milner (M L6) providing real poise and sensitivity to her portrayal of this role: ‘I Don’t Know how to Love Him’ was a particularly beautiful moment in the show.
Whilst the stage floor was awash with the energy and excitement of the followers of Jesus, looking down upon them from their elevated platform above the band were the Priests and the Romans, darkly dressed and darkly conniving. The sonorous bass of Ben Lloyd (Rb, UVI) provided real menace and malevolence to the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas as he and his fellow priests plotted to kill Jesus. Ed Hart (PH U6) was equally sinister as Annas, impressing on his musical theatre debut, proving it’s never too late to have a go!
Also making her debut on the Ashton stage was Grace Anderson (MSH L6) bringing dazzle and pizzazz to the pompously regal King Herod, whose song in the style of a 1920s jazz number was accompanied by a chorus line of dancers and a glitter-burst finale, a moment of lightness amidst the darkness of the plot. Further talent was unearthed with Olivia Moir (MSH L6) in fine voice as Peter, whose denial of Christ was skilfully portrayed.
As the gathering plot to arrest Jesus accelerates, Pontius Pilate wrestles with the huge weight of responsibility upon him. Stephanie Worthington (MSH L6) executed the role quite masterfully, her voice providing a haunting portrayal of Pilate’s inner turmoil.
The title role of Jesus was carried off with aplomb by Dom Sullivan (I U6) who managed to find time out from his role in the 1st VIII rowing crew to take to the stage. Swapping his World Rowing Championship gold medal for a quite dazzling gold jacket, not only were his dance moves something to behold, but likewise his superstar singing was utterly stellar. The vocal range required for the part makes this role perhaps one of the most challenging in all musical theatre, seen most clearly in the astonishingly moving song ‘Gethsemane’. As Christ is left alone in the garden to ponder and pray, the agony and anxiety of a man confronting his prophesised death is wrought with deep anguish and emotion. With a staggering three-octave range required, Dom’s rendition of the song was astonishing and a deeply poignant moment in the show.
Equally memorable – and an ingenious moment of choreography from Sian Archer – was the scene of the 39 lashes. As Pilate metronomically administered the back-splitting punishment one whip-strike at a time, a quintet of dancers (Anya Tonks (MSH L6); Charlie Tonks (MSH U6), UVI; Daisy David (EDH 5); Georgina Cooper (G 4); Kate Woodman (M 3)) delivered the stinging blows with a succession of kicks, spins and thrusts, the choreography a moment of real invention and one of significant dramatic potency.
The dramatic denouement of the show – Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection – was sensitively handled, the poignancy of the scene enhanced with the dramatic lighting design. As ever, whilst the quality and expertise on stage was evident to see, equally impressive were the efforts of those behind the scenes. Theatre technicians Adam Wall and Bradley Fenton’s task of building a full-size tank (including rotating turret) was a gargantuan task, though one they pulled off with remarkable skill. With the Ashton having previously seen a near-full-scale B-52 bomber built for All My Sons, we can no doubt look forward to further large items of transport featuring in future productions (Titanic: The Musical, anyone?). They were ably assisted by a number of pupils from Jake Ludlam (R 4) who was tasked with lighting, stationing himself within the tank (in khaki and army helmet of course), to James Kenyon (Ch 4) and Eustacia Feng (M 4) on the sound desks. Theatre tech is in safe hands for many years to come with this impressive trio.
The final number – ‘Superstar’– was a jubilant, thrilling finish with Dom Sullivan and Phoebe Morris descending down the steps of the audience and getting the clapping going as we watched the cast deliver their final, euphoric number.
Standing ovations followed – not often seen at school productions – and quite rightly so; this was a quite remarkable production. To answer the question in the song, ‘Can we start again please?’ Well, let me think. Yes please!
Deputy Head (Co-Curricular)
To view more photos of the production, please follow the link: Jesus Christ Superstar - photo gallery