Can it really be nearly three decades since Jason Donovan made his West End debut on the stage of The London Palladium in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? How the world has changed in that time, and so has this new revamped production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice classic, directed by Laurence Connor.
The musical’s return to the Palladium is sure to conjure up a feeling of nostalgia for large numbers of the audience flocking to see the show, but while this remains the classic bible story on stage, it’s been brought in to the 21st century with a little more than a crash of drums, and flash of light.
Gone is the children’s choir of the 1990’s, replaced by a much smaller group of youngsters who take on a far bigger role. You won’t find them hunkered down, hands on knees this time round. Instead they drive the story from their imaginations, launching from a circle around a camp fire. They then go on to take up some of the principal roles, including a couple of the brothers and Potiphar.
There’s an enhanced role for the narrator too, one which sees Sheridan Smith firmly in control of proceedings, while using her versatility as a performer to pick up additional characters. Smith was born for this kind of role, and that’s not just down to her incredible vocals, the rapport she builds with the audience from the outset makes for a wonderful dynamic, her cheeky winks and asides let us know we’re on her team.
In Jac Yarrow, playing the title character, a new star is born. On two separate occasions I found myself mouthing the word ‘wow!’, firstly as he made ‘Close Every Door to Me’ sound like it had been written especially for him, the audience clearly agreed as it earned him a standing ovation on the spot, and then later with a goosebump inducing ‘Any Dream Will Do’. Yarrow’s performance is both magnificent and inspiring, and considering this is his West End debut, still in drama school too, there’s not a whole lot of interpretation required to know his dreams are coming true with every second he spends on stage.
It’s not until the second act we see Jason Donovan emerge in his new role of Pharaoh, but it’s worth the wait. Morgan Large’s set transforms in to a golden palace, it’s wonderfully over the top and exhilarating to watch. Donovan’s brief set as ‘The King’ seems to turn every audience member in to a giggling school girl, as he gyrates around a Vegas inspired throne room.
The majority of remaining roles are picked up by the children’s cast; with their stuck on beards and dressing gown style costumes, this Joseph sometimes resembles a junior school production attempting to use up a budget surplus. That said, I found it utterly charming as it emphasised the theme of this story being told from a youngster’s perspective, and every one of those children performed their hearts out.
The production is also well aware of what it’s doing, practically sending itself up at every opportunity, and saying to the audience ‘let’s enjoy this together’. Laurence Connor has found the comedy in this show, and Sheridan Smith executes it with expertise. It is absolutely bursting with an energy of biblical proportions, Joann M. Hunter’s choreography gives some of those big dance numbers a more modern hip-hop feel, and no one ever seems to stand still for long under Ben Cracknell’s dynamic lighting design.
Morgan Large’s set reminds you of a barren desert and a cave of wonders all at once, transforming in seconds to a visually spectacular melting pot of cultures and identities. He has designed the most beautiful of technicolor dreamcoats, that moves in its own magical and visually arresting way. Sadly however, one of the coat’s most iconic moments seems to have not made the cut in this new version.
There are those who may choose to look down their nose at a production like Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but look around the auditorium during that final mega mix, and the joy and exhilaration in the hearts of every audience member, including many children, can be seen as they take to their feet. You also wonder how many of those young audience members are seeing a West End show for the first time, and how this might inspire them to love theatre for the rest of their lives, just as Jason Donovan’s Joseph did for me, twenty eight years ago.