Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
Pockets of the audience whoop when Ian ‘H from Steps’ Watkins strides on stage. These delighted fans highlight the central issue: your appreciation of Watkins’ grinning Joseph may depend on how many of his 90s top 10 hits you can name. In this tour, the show itself seems to be banking on a similar nostalgia.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s kitsch, colourful musical has never reached for great depth. Originally written as a choir piece for a school, the endearing show sticks to these family-friendly roots by telling its biblical tale of the enslaved then vindicated Joseph in big bright strokes. There’s the pyramidal staging and disco lights, the deliberately panto props (a speech bubble appearing at one point over Joseph’s head), those eccentric touches like the Pharaoh reinterpreted as Elvis.
Indeed, for a child these exotic Egyptian wonders still offer a glittering introduction to musical theatre. The show is short enough not to strain young attention spans, with liberal dashes of humour to season its simple plot, and ends in cuddly victory, which is more than can be said for any number of puritanical parables not destined for the stage (Death of the Firstborn, anyone?).
But there comes a point where cartoonish sets aren’t knowingly cheap (as in Spamalot); in this 2013 tour they’re just a bit Tupperware. So in the absence of interest from the staging, older audiences are left with the songs and performances, coloured by memories of glorious productions past. The numbers by and large remain brisk and buoyant. Any Dream Will Do still wins rhapsodic reactions, and swift shifts from one musical style to another ensure any duds are never in mind for long.
As the becoated lead, Watkins struggles for the vocal power and feeling to animate a ballad like Close Every Door, and comparisons with the superior Lee Mead do him no favours. The ‘H’ of his Steps days stands for ‘hyperactive’, and Watkins does provide some spirited Tigger-esque bouncing around the stage. He is an amiable presence, engaging the audience with fourth-wall-breaking shenanigans, but brings nothing to the role to really change opinions either way – it’s just that bloke who covered Tragedy doing Joseph.
Jennifer Potts, meanwhile, shines as the narrator, Luke Jasztal is a charismatic Pharaoh with blue-suede shoes, and of Jason’s many brothers the standout is Richard J. Hunt as a Judah with a passing resemblance to Jack Black. Comic timing is well-judged by the whole cast, and the choreography is energetic if slight, like a theatrical take on the stage-managed pop confections from which ‘H’ emerged.
Despite its basis in an enduring parable, this tour of Joseph doesn’t leave the impression of a timeless classic. Its tinselly artifice shows signs of wearing thin, its once-bold colours washing out from careless overuse. During the encores, as the songs are recapped in a Jason Megamix while ‘H’ rouses the audience to clap and sing along, you might half expect the show to go full-on Steps with 5, 6, 7, 8 or Deeper Shade of Blue. That’s the feel of this jaunty Sunday school lesson: we’ve been here before, but people can’t get enough of those greatest hits.