This was the first UK revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman’s epic rock musical in over a decade. Quite a statement, particularly when you realise it's taking place in the middle of rural Berkshire. But that’s the magic of the Watermill Theatre…
Usually set in Lancashire, we’re instead fired into 1950s Louisiana, which heightens themes of post-WW2 booms in economic recovery efforts but against a backdrop of racial segregation and powerful religious beliefs, which in turn enhances the plot.
We’re led through the story by young Swallow - one of three children, who discovers a man hiding in her barn who we know to be a criminal and, through a confusing conversation, ends up convinced he is Jesus Christ. After losing their mother, the children are desperate for a miracle so look after him, tending to his wounds and keeping him a secret from the grown-ups of the town.
It’s only when Swallow begins to find herself forming feelings for ‘Jesus’ things begin to unravel. Lydia Whites’ performance as Swallow is utterly captivating. Her innocence and eagerness to be adored by Jesus is encapsulating and heartbreaking. Her expressions of longing and evident naivety pull on your heartstrings and, teamed with the loss of her mother, make you want to sweep her up and look after her.
Lydia is supported by a large cast including a brilliant ensemble of local young actors and actresses. With no weak link amongst them, each interaction felt genuine and each character wholly developed. The energy never faltered and their connection with the audience never weakened. The cast kept each member of the 220-large audience firmly within their grip for every moment of the 2 hours and 10 minutes.
Elliot Mackenzie, as onstage MD, among other roles, guides almost every actor as they integrate music into their roles. As I discussed with a fellow reviewer in the interval, onstage musicians can often become distracting but this was done just perfectly in this production.
This decision, like every other, had a purpose. Each element had nuance. Tom Jackson-Greaves’ direction and choreography was an asset to this show. The repeated action of bird wings beating in flight brought a refreshing lightness to the show, symbolising the freedom pined for by so many of the characters.
The lighting stood out with the warm rays of sunset beaming through the gaps between wooden slats in the barn set. Teamed with an incredibly tense finale, as smoke poured out from behind the set, the visual elements always enhanced the emotion conveyed from the cast.
The catchy songs brought balance and variety with tunes ranging from Whistle Down The Wind, Children Rule The World and No Matter What already finding themselves onto my Spotify.
I just hope that September doesn’t bring the last time we will see this production. It's far too good for it not to be seen by the masses.