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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
PIPPIN
at Menier Chocolate Factory

OVERREACHING AMBITION
By JOHN NATHAN

  (L to R) Anabel Kutay, David Page and Holly James/ Ph: Tristram Kenton

It is hard to warm to a show with a hero whose fate doesn't seem to matter much. The hero in Stephen Schwartz’s rarely revived 1972 musical wants it all, but has nothing to offer in return. Pippin is like Faust without talent. So I couldn’t care much less whether this teenage elder son of Charlemagne – yes the medieval conqueror, that Charlemagne – made his mark in life. To that end he joins his father in battle, decides that killing is a bad thing, and naturally murders his dad, only to find that being a benevolent kind of king is not as easy as he thought it would be.
 
He would do it all differently if only he had the chance, which as it happens is exactly the wish granted him by Leading Player. This is the Mephistophelean lead performer of a troupe of actors. His purpose appears to be to pander to the overreaching ambition of young minds in order to prove to them that they should not be so ambitious. Despite the medieval setting it is safe to say that historical accuracy is not the point here.
 
What is the point is that Schwartz and book writer Roger O Hirson wrote their rites-of-passage teenage tale just as the swinging 60s segued into the slightly more sober 70s. You can hear it in the score. Hair is most definitely there. But add Bob Fosse’s seductive choreography – recreated by Chet Walker – and you have a show whose moves and music quicken the pulse, whatever the merits of the story they are attached to. One dance sequence in particular owes much to the exhilarating nightclub scene in Sweet Charity – an earlier Chocolate Factory revival. Though the spirit of Fosse lives on in the long runner Chicago, it burns brightest at this tiny south London venue.
 
Yet the talking point of the show is all about the design of Mitch Sebastian’s production. Apparently inspired by Leading Player’s name, the entire show is set within a computer game. Pippin – nicely underplayed by Harry Hepple – is but a teenage computer game geek whom we first see on the way to our seat as we pass through his bedroom where he battles X-Box enemies. You can almost smell the testosterone. We emerge, however, into a very different world. Designer Tim Bird – who brought Seurat’s paintings to life for the Menier’s superb production of Sunday in the Park with George – has here created a stunning environment. For those who like their sci-fi cinema, this is a little like being on set during the filming of Tron. Computer generated characters are projected onto the walls through which, thanks to some good old fashioned stagecraft, some of the cast magically pass, joining the ranks of their animated counterparts. 
 
The mix of 21st century effects and Schwartz’s 40 year-old score banishes any sense of datedness. And melodically this show has more going for it than Schwarz’s other musical currently in town – the behemoth Wicked, which bludgeons you into admiring it rather than seduces you into loving it, the way a rock musical should. Pippin, by contrast, feels like a staged 1970s concept album, and the terrific Matt Rawle delivers the kind of full-throttle evangelical performance that used to fill stadiums. Meanwhile Carly Bawden as Pippin’s single-mother love interest has a voice that brings to mind Dusty Springfield.
 

So no, it is not Pippin’s fate that keeps us interested here. And definitely not the show’s lesson. Captured by the lyric, “It was never there, it was always here,” the moral appears to be to never look beyond the people we love in order to find fulfillment. This advice is almost as bad as that offered by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when she learns that fulfillment can be found only by searching no further than her own backyard. Perhaps we would have cared more if Pippin exhibited a talent that deserved recognition. But there is an awful lot here to enjoy on the way to finding out that you could hardly care less. 

 


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