Culture Theatre

‘Joseph’ – ahead of its time or woefully behind the curve?

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Joseph and his dreamcoat. There are some things about the show that I adore, particularly the production’s unique ridiculousness. I mean, what other musical would make a little girl proud to be able to recite a list of colours by heart? There is something in it that does seem to speak to us, after all, it is a musical packed full of sheer joy. Don’t lie, you know you were singing along with the Great British public when Jac Yarrow sang Any Dream Will Do on BBC’s Musicals, The Greatest Show

Just a short digression, if you have not yet got the chance to see Musicals, The Greatest Show stop everything now and turn on BBC iPlayer! It is a fantastic feel-good collection of everyone’s favourite show tunes, a perfect escape we all need right now – particularly after an exhausting Hilary Term. It made me weep, it made me laugh, it awakened my inner  karaoke queen – but most of all it made me realise just how much we need our shows. The joyous montage of the public singing Any Dream will Do with performers ranging from little children in crafty costumes to a group of nuns is testament to the uniting power of musicals, even when covid-19 forces us to be kept away from the stage. I dare you to go 5 minutes without singing; you won’t manage it. 

…anyway back to the task at hand. Let’s go (go go Joseph). From May 17th everyone’s favourite dreamer will be returning to London’s West End at the London Palladium. I had the chance to see this production last year, and I have to say for a show that began as a 45-minute piece for primary-aged kiddies Laurence Connor does create a marvellously magical spectacle. At the centre is Jac Yarrow who, despite this being his debut in professional theatre, shines brighter than the gold in Potiphar’s coffers. His Joseph is kaleidoscopic, and I am not just talking about his coat. The coat is all too often the most exciting part of Joseph’s character – which is highly problematic considering that it appears for no more than five minutes – but Yarrow certainly stands out from the gaudy fabric. He is best when separated from the all-consuming absurdity of the production. His harrowing Close Every Door to Me was sheer magic – I am not ashamed to say I cried. Jason Donovan also sparkles, (perhaps a bit too much), as Pharaoh. His solo is sublimely ridiculous. Yes, you will find yourselves asking what on earth an Elvis Tribute is doing in a Biblical musical, but once you suspend all this disbelief there is nothing to hate about Donovan. It might be over 30 years since he was Joseph himself, but Donovan is far from flagging. My main criticism is Sheridan Smith’s Narrator. We should probably call her Sheridan Showboat. Yes, the narrator is an important part, but Smith continually works to steal the scene from the other main characters. She’s good but we are not watching Narrator and her Amazing Technicolour Storybook. However, don’t let this dissuade you, Joseph is still worth a visit this summer. Watch out for the £15 pound seats at the front of the Upper Balcony, they are lying when they say the view is restricted! 

However, I do question whether Joseph has aged well enough to justify a spot in one of the biggest theatres in the West End. While Joseph might go go go in terms of energy, there is nothing about it that is ‘ahead of its time’. First of all, it is certainly not technicoloured. It could be whitest production I have ever seen, and I have seen Les Misérables an embarrassing number of times! While the white washing of the Bible is certainly nothing new I don’t think Joseph should simply hop onto this trend. It could and needs to do much better. If you were to look up cultural appropriation in a dictionary you could easily find yourselves reading ‘see Lloyd Webber’s Joseph’. It is a musical that perpetuates some very uncomfortable and outdated stereotypes. In the 21st century is it really that appropriate to find actors singing in (appalling) quasi-French accents, we ‘raise your berets to ‘zoze’ Canaan Days’? Equally dodgy is the calypso moment in act 2…yes the line ‘Benjamin is honest as coconuts’ is actually really spoken– no, I couldn’t believe it either. 

There was no way Laurence Connor was completely getting around these fundamental flaws with Joseph. But I’m not sure he even tried that hard to make the production culturally sensitive. Thank goodness ‘Benjamin’s calypso’ is sung by a person of colour. But, given that this song was the first and only time we saw this actor sing a solo it certainly felt like he was cast only for the sake of correctness. Indeed Joseph’s cultural ‘megamix’ is also problematically fundamental to the show. If we were to take out every single moment constructed around stereotypes or problematic pastiches we would be left with only minutes of usable music. We should also question whether these stereotypes actually add anything to the production. I find them more distracting than funny. To take ‘Those Canaan Days’ as an example – what could have been a tragic song about the trauma of famine, or a gnawing nostalgia for the past, is turned into an inappropriate comedy by the appropriation of exaggerated French accents. Considering that there isn’t a primary school child in the country who has not performed Joseph in some form or another, I always wonder if this is really the message we want to send to kids. 

There is no doubt that Joseph is a fun-filled few hours and if you need a pick me up you could do much worse. But how many of these laughs are caused by laughing at (because you certainly aren’t laughing with) another culture? That is certainly not how I would define fun…

Yes the shows must go on, but maybe this Joseph should have been left in 1968…

Image: Creative Commons Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Tulane Public Relations by Albert Herring is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Jessica Steadman

Jess, one of The Oxford Blue's Columnists, is a first year studying English at Univ. She writes a column inspired by the medieval stories she read to procrastinate her modernism paper. When she is trying to avoid work completely you will find her halfway up a climbing wall.