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A CurtainUp London Review
by Sebastian King
Following its short-lived West End run at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1973, Pippin is rarely performed in this country, despite having had several major revivals across the Atlantic. However, given Babani’s reputation for re-exploring Broadway classics as imaginative chamber pieces, perhaps his choice of Pippinis unsurprising; although this production is anything but.
Loosely based on a true story, Pippin tells the story of its eponymous hero – the teenage son of Charlemagne, King of the Franks – as he searches for purpose in his life. Along the way, he dabbles in war, sex, art and religion in his quest to do something extraordinary. Hirson’s book is purposefully abstruse, and with its disposal of the fourth wall, and frequent references to class divide and revolution, feels at times like the sort of theatre Brecht would have been making, had he been alive in the 1970s. The songs pastiche a variety of musical styles, and have echoes of Schwartz’s more recent and most successful show Wicked, although there are far fewer memorable tunes here.
Although the original production saw a troupe of travelling players telling Pippin’s story as a play-within-a-play, Mitch Sebastian’s radical re-working roots it firmly within the world of a computer game. The audience enters the auditorium through a teenager’s bedroom (complete with teenager – more of him later), plastered in recent movie and computer game posters. Timothy Bird’s sparse industrial set utilises the Menier space brilliantly, and is constantly transformed and reinvented throughout the performance with stunning projections, taking us on a journey further and further inside this weird and wonderful virtual world.
We are welcomed by the Leading Player (Matt Rawle), a sinister Master of Ceremonies who guides us through the various ‘levels’. The teenager from the bedroom enters, and is told that he will be playing this game as ‘Pippin’. In the title role, Harry Hepple is an amiable Everyman figure, with a great voice. His opening number, in which he yearns for his ‘Corner of the Sky’ is the best number in the show and loses none of its magic over the course of its various reprises.
Hepple and Rawle are ably supported by an attractive and talented ensemble, thrusting and gyrating their way through Bob Fosse’s original choreography, recreated here by Chet Walker, and fused with more contemporary movement by Sebastian. Among the top-notch supporting cast, Frances Ruffelle as Pippin’s evil stepmother Fastrada and Louise Gold as his bohemian grandmother Berthe are woefully underused, and Carly Bawden as his love interest and saviour Catherine is a welcome addition to Act 2, with her haunting torch song ‘I Guess I’ll Miss The Man’ one of the musical highlights of the evening.
This is a bold reinterpretation of a bizarre piece, and will no doubt provoke strong reactions from its audiences. However, whether you love it or hate it, there is no doubt that you – like Pippin himself – will have experienced something truly extraordinary.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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