“Please reward our pluck and save this duck”
With the standard ticket price of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s new production of Pippin coming in at £33.50 – and the memories of last year’s turkey still fresh – I decided that I wouldn’t be taking another risk on a show I didn’t know. But when a £10 deal popped up online, I couldn’t resist and though it meant that it was a preview I saw and thus am writing about now, that is not the kind of saving I can ignore. The show has music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz – he of Wicked and Godspell (but we won’t talk about The Baker’s Wife) and book by Roger O Hirson and was originally directed by Bob Fosse on Broadway. That run lasted for five years and consequently the show has become something of an am-dram staple in the US albeit in an emasculated version (so Wikipedia tells me).
Perhaps with this in mind, director Mitch Sebastian has been extremely bold with his concept here: employing Chet Walker to recreate Fosse’s original choreography looks back to the history of the show but Sebastian has incorporated those routines into his own choreographical work and Timothy Bird’s production design for Knifedge points to a much more futuristic mindset. The Young Vic’s inability to let audiences just enter normally into a production there has spread across Southwark and so the walk into the theatre here takes us through a gloomy bedsit, computer games and magazines strewn across the floor and sci-fi film posters covering the walls, and we walk pass a young man staring blankly into a computer screen and playing with a lighter. Once inside, the auditorium is set up rather traditionally and the set initially looks rather unassuming but the reasons for that soon become apparent.
For this Pippin is set mainly in a virtual reality, the Leading Player and his troupe of actors all seem to be players in a role-playing type game and compel Pippin into this world where he has to complete level after level, learning lessons about life, love, war and gaining much needed experience. This tech-savvy interpretation is packed full of modern references: Skype dates, tweeting jokes, pop-up sex ads, even the Arts cuts get in there, all amusingly worked into the book and there’s some great computer graphics work. Harry Hepple – he of the Donmar’s Spelling Bee – makes a most appealing Pippin, the everyman figure at the heart of the show who has to do battle with, amongst other things, scheming stepmothers and jealous brothers, his angry feelings towards his father, his raging libido and his overall life expectations. This he does with charm and flair, an easy singing voice and bags of likeable personality.
Matt Rawle’s Leading Player, something of a cult leader here, has a smoothly satanic feel – a cross between Russell Brand and Matthew Kelly – the hint of danger always present as things start to move out of his control. Frances Ruffelle’s Essex-inspired stepmuvva Fastrada is a whole heap of saucy fun, though it would have been nice to see and hear more of her, especially as her chemistry with stage son David Page as Lewis is electric and all kinds of wrong: completely understandable though as he is a remarkably impressive physical presence and a fantastic dancer. Ian Kelsey completes the family as a bluff Charlemagne, an incongruous piece of casting but one that works. Louise Gold is a raucous delight as Pippin’s grandma Berthe (Caroline Quentin will cover the role from 10th January for two weeks with further casting yet to be announced) with an unexpected sing-along moment and complementing it all, the ensemble is stuffed full with top talent, delivering nifty routine after routine.
Given the level of innovation and fun in the first act, after the interval and a much needed cooling nip outside, I couldn’t help but feel the second half didn’t quite live up to its predecessor. The arrival of Carly Bawden – no umbrellas in hand though – was much welcomed and she sang and danced like an absolute dream as the widowed mother who offers Pippin a glimpse of regular life. But the energy level of the show dipped in this section, even with the strong emotional connection between Hepple and Bawden, and even when the twisted surrealism returned for the final act, it didn’t quite fit right. I was a little perplexed as to what was happening in the real world, in the virtual world and just how everyone was talking to each other and after thrashing it out on the way home, I’m still not 100% sure how it worked but perhaps it is best not overthink it.
There’s no doubting that this production of Pippin is a bit mental but in the first half, it executes a stunning combination of choreography, singing and directorial flair. It may lose its way a little in the second half but I can’t help but feel that is the show itself as much as anything. As a first engagement with this musical, the interpretation didn’t bother me at all but I wonder perhaps how those who are familiar with it will feel about this treatment and whether its technological slant will alienate some. I will be intrigued to see how it is received by audiences. On a last note, whilst ‘Corner of the Sky’ is undoubtedly a pretty song but I have to say I could have done with a reprise or two less 😉