A surprising amount of modern theatre is hugely nostalgic, looking back to what seem to be happier, simpler times. While plenty of new writing reflects the here and now, our deep-rooted connection to writers such as Terence Rattigan, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward are steeped in our love of the past and rarely seen without the period paraphernalia. But there is a more individual nostalgia in theatre that is also deeply personal, one that connects us to the shows we have loved at different times in our lives, shows that take us back to our childhoods.
Perhaps not many people remember the first West End show they ever saw but a primary school aged child taken to see their then hero Jason Donovan make his own West End debut at the London Palladium in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1991 is not something you easily forget, and it’s possible to overlook just what a huge star Donovan was back then. Having only seen regional panto before including Fiona Corke (i.e. Gail from Neighbours – spot the theme!) playing Peter Pan at the Marlowe Theatre, this formative experience in one of London’s most prestigious venues made a lasting impression.
Produce Michael Harrison and Director Laurence Connor understand the emotive power of that nostalgia and the decision to include Donovan in the latest revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s evergreen musical as the Elvis-like Pharaoh is incredibly savvy casting. But Joseph is a show which has always had a kind of childhood nostalgia baked right in, whether from its early incarnations as a school production through the many iterations and revivals since, its light-hearted melodies and almost cartoonish story have captured the imagination of generations of children. Anyone lucky enough to catch Donovan’s brief run in 1991 or any of the subsequent incumbents – Philip Schofield, Darren Day, Stephen Gately, Lee Mead even Gareth Gates – are, 28 years later, hoping to re-live that experience. Even if this is your very first Joseph, you won’t be disappointed.
It’s not easy to create a show that looks backwards and forwards at the same time, that will satisfy an audience with a decades-old memory of it while offering enough modern application to prevent this highly performed musical feeling like a museum piece. Connor impressively manages both, working with Musical Director John Rigby and Choreographer Joann M. Hunter to update some of the music and dance sequences to include more rap and street dance stylings. This gives the overall show a dreamlike urban feel particularly in the vision for Act One finale ‘Go Go Go Jospeh’ and through the characterisation of the Narrator.
Like the Adrian Mole musical down the road in Covent Garden, Connor also mixes child and adult performers together in unusual ways that work extremely well. Of the eight children who form a fireside circle around the Narrator at the start to hear the story of Joseph, they end up scattered through the action as several of the protagonist’s 11 brothers, the snooty aristocrat Potiphar who Joseph works for in Egypt, as well as the Butler and Baker, Joseph’s dream-plagued cellmates. A large pool of young actors will rotate these roles, lending an additional charm to the show including some great solo moments that add to the comedy of the Potiphar scenes as well as creating an opportunity for one little brother to start the wonderful ‘Benjamin Calypso.’ It’s a smart approach from Connor and Harrison who use their young cast members to create a warm family feel while tying the show back to its school hall origins.
But Connor has more tricks for us and creates a hybrid quality-makeshift production. There is a fluid simplicity to the construction here that belies the technical complexity behind the scenes. The result is a show that actively and warmly welcomes in the audience but similar awes them with a spectacle that it wears rather lightly for the most part. Part of that idea is realised by doubling the Narrator character with several additional roles in the story including Jacob, Potiphar’s vampish wife and a fellow prisoner. It is an interesting but very successful choice, deepening the notion that the Narrator is a contemporary master of ceremonies, controlling and conjuring the story before us, while retaining a playful, dressing-up box feel that runs through the set and costume design.
A lot of time has passed in theatre design since the 1991 production and Morgan Large has clearly been inspired by the bold impressionism of big West End shows like The Lion King. Puppetry has advanced apace as well so the show includes two mechanical camel puppets made from bicycles and some comedy static sheep that look like scaled-up children’s toys. The centrepiece of the design is a huge backdrop filled by an enormous round sun (or moon) that moves rapidly across the wall as required, but is tonally altered using arresting block colours to suggest the burning orange heat of Canaan as the brother’s plot against Joseph, becoming blood red as Reuben sings the Western-inspired ‘One More Angel in Heaven’ and even an emphatic blue at the end of ‘Joseph’s Coat’.
It is a very colourful production in every sense, inspired by the fantastic array of shades in the famous technicolor garment, Large has created a forceful and vibrant experience, full of block primary tones that give a heightened feel to the action, referencing the notion of dreams and storytelling that drive the plot. Again, this looks simple with layers of basic shapes to suggest time and place, but the overall effect is strong, with an almost Van Gogh-like intensity in the way colour has been deliberately chosen to change the mood and tone of the show. Notably in Act One, the humbler presentation of the character’s lives uses an arrangement of reddish patterned cloths to form the tent-like home of Joseph’s family, later contrasted by the elaborate detail of Pharaoh’s gold palace. Together, they form a considered and impactful production design which speaks to the show’s history in school productions while making it distinct from earlier, more naturalistic approaches. It feels memorably modern.
Connor’s production certainly never takes itself too seriously and every opportunity to make the audience laugh or clap along is seized with gusto by the show’s other big-name Sheridan Smith. A decorated musical theatre star, Smith is an energetic and engaging Narrator, encouraging the crowd at every opportunity and refusing to stand on the side-lines of the story she is telling. Using her comedy background, Smith not only takes on multi-gendered roles with the aid of an elasticated beard but utilises her meta-theatrical role above the story to add a few nods and winks in the right places to increase the humorous effect.
Given modern harem-style trousers and trainers, Smith’s Narrator reflects the more urban feel to some of the music by marking and punching the beat. By far the largest role in the production, Smith’s vocals are richly layered, precisely mapping the tone changes across the quiet varied song styles while joining the larger dance numbers that reference styles as diverse as Can-Can, line dancing and hip hop. Smith is a hugely charismatic stage performer and here that warmth is her biggest asset, using humour to connect with the audience while creating a distinct and sparkling personality for the Narrator, setting and controlling the tone to hold this episodic tale together. Removing the artificial barrier between audience and performers, Smith’s approach is a key asset in the show’s success.
With only a couple of appearances in Act Two, the Pharaoh is a small but memorable role, amplified in this instance by the return of Jason Donovan to a show that solidified his megastar status nearly 30 years ago. And with the ‘Pharaoh’s Story’ given over to silhouette, Connor allows Donovan to make a spectacular entrance carried dramatically through the rear doors on a sedan chair to a rapturous applause from the auditorium. Essentially an Elvis impersonation, the role is really an extended cameo, full of camp silliness the extremes of which actors often have a lot of fun with.
Now an established musical theatre star, Donovan certainly makes it his own, adopting the fairly broad but high energy approach taken across the production to maximise the comedy. So while he employs the Elvis low drawl and inward-facing knees, he keeps the impersonation under tight control. The look of exhaustion Donovan throws the audience as Pharaoh slumps into his throne at the end of song provides additional amusement, as do the several reprises of the ‘Song of the King’ he delivers before finally letting Joseph speak to him. Some of the vocals are lost to over-amplification but no one cares, the room is alight, lost in our own circles of personal nostalgia – not bad for a 10-minute appearance.
With two big names to sell tickets, Harrison and Connor cast the unknown Jac Yarrow in the lead role after seeing a student production. Due to graduate on the final day of the run, it proves a canny decision as Yarrow delivers a confident, star-making performance. Joseph is not always a likeable character, arrogantly bragging about his power dreams and Jacob’s blatant favouritism, so you may feel the tiniest bit of sympathy when his brothers set upon him. Yarrow navigates all of this extremely well as Joseph’s fortunes rise and fall across the story.
It’s not a show that allows the central character to let loose very often with only two solos including the, let’s face it, almost painfully schmaltzy ‘Any Dream Will Do’ which Yarrow delivers well. Buy it is in the more meaningful ‘Close Every Door’ that his performance really shines, building forcefully across the number and showcasing the strength of his vocals. The extended applause that follows the song is well deserved and despite the lyrics you can practically hear doors flinging open to Yarrow all over town.
One of the most likeable aspects of the Joseph soundtrack is the variable but unified musical combination of country, calypso and French cabaret which reveal the interior experience of the brothers. Richard Carson as Reuben gives ‘One More Angel in Heaven’ a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers feel that comes through the choreography, while Michael Pickering delivers a brilliant rendition of Simeon’s ‘Those Canaan Days’. There’s good support from the surrounding cast in a variety of guises including the extended central family, Pharaoh’s attendants and fellow prisoners that fill the stage with activity at all the right moments.
Given the rousing reception to this production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and full-house standing ovation for the entirety of the ‘Joseph Megamix’, it barely matters what the press make of this on Thursday. With two much-loved performers in key roles and a bright new talent as Joseph, it’s almost certainly critic-proof. Harrison and Connor may play on our nostalgia, leaning on childhood memories of school productions or Donovan’s run in the 1990s, but the staging and orchestration of the Palladium’s new version looks to the future, as a whole new set of children fall in love with this perennial musical. If Yarrow returns to it in 20 years, his army of new fans will come back with him.