This is the first proper London revival of the Stephen Schwartz/ Roger O. Hirson musical since Bob Fosse directed it in 1973. According to the programme notes, this production is trying to get the show recognised again as a mature, adult, dark piece, and away from its legacy of being only suitable for school productions. All I can say is, welcome back Pippin, you’ve been absent from our stage too long. This is a brilliantly inventive production and is performed by a first rate cast.
One of the strengths of the Menier is its amazing versatility as an acting space. You can set it the right way round, the wrong way round, sideways, in the middle, in traverse; it wouldn’t surprise me one day if they stage something upside down. This time they have created a walkway between the steps down from the bar to the point of entry to the auditorium, and decked it out like a rather geeky, nerdy student’s bedroom. And just on your way in there is the student himself, sitting at a TV screen, playing a computer game. It’s not over high-tech; there’s something of the 1990s Atari to it all.
And then you enter the auditorium, and the stage is alive with flashing lights and retro green cursor lines, and you realise you are in the middle of the computer game. How is this going to frame the story of Pippin, you ask yourself. Comfortably, as it happens. Pippin is the elder son of Charlemagne who rebelled against his father and was banished as a consequence. The 1973 production began with a troupe of actors, under the Leading Player, who introduces a new actor to play the part the eponymous boy prince searching for fulfilment. With cunning modernisation, the Leading Player is now in charge of a computer game, and the boy prince role is to be played by the young lad in his bedroom at home who we walked past earlier. Sometimes when a gifted director decides to update a show, it can be disappointing when the new framework only partly fits the original story. For me, this reincarnation of Pippin worked the full 100%.
The set itself is suitably creative in its own right. What appears to be grey stone, that nicely represents castle walls, is actually littered with gaps and holes so that the cast can appear and disappear with sudden ease. Lighting effects on the walls serve to enhance the scenery and give it additional depth and suggestion of different locations, and all this works really well with the computer game scenario.
Pippin himself is perfectly cast and played by Harry Hepple. As the slightly naïve prince who gets emboldened by ambition and then depressed by reality, he manages to be both prince and game player at the same time and conveys both aspects of the character convincingly. His singing is also amazing, we were both wowed by his voice.
He also really communicates the character’s wannabe heroism and decency, that becomes the inspiration for him to overthrow his father Charlemagne, a bullying emperor enthusiastically played by Ian Kelsey, who portrays him as a wide boy, lording it over his sons and wife whilst looking for a bit of slap and tickle wherever he can get it. There’s a strong emotional scene when Pippin does actually kill his father – but later he regrets it as his governing skills aren’t that great, and I loved how the death gets undone.
Fastrada, Charlemagne’s wife, is played with urban charm by Frances Ruffelle, who is also a great singer and does a wonderful blend of coquettish and coarse. You could imagine she would give as good as she gets when she’s alone with Charlemagne. She invests the role with great humour and gives a superb performance.
The role of Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, has been shared by various actresses during the run, and the performance we saw was the last time Caroline Quentin took the role. It’s actually just one scene and one song, but she delivers it with huge panache and got a deservingly great cheer from the audience at the end of it. She’s such a spirited communicator. The song is great fun too and we all had to sing along with it, verging into pantomime. It’s time to start livin’ and time to take a little from this world we’re given. Hugely entertaining.
I was looking forward to seeing Matt Rawle in the role of the Leading Player as we saw him in Evita as Che and he was excellent. Unfortunately he must have been off sick as his role was played by his understudy, Bob Harms. What a find! Mr Harms carries off the role splendidly. He’s a great singer and dancer, and commands the stage in his role of MD. When the characters start to go off script in the second act you really feel his anger and frustration at losing control. If you saw Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, there’s definitely something of the Major-Domo character about him. We thought he was great and One To Watch.
The second half of the show is slightly imbalanced as it concentrates on the relationship between Pippin and Catherine, a partly demure but often saucy Carly Bawden, and her slightly troubled son Theo played by Stuart Neal. The domestic situation that Pippin finds hard to cope with is indeed a little one-dimensional in comparison with the over-the-top antics of Charlemagne’s court, who you rather miss. Nevertheless the songs are beautifully sung and make an ironic contrast with Pippin’s tangible descent into misery.
I won’t tell you how it ends but suffice to say, the exit from the auditorium when you’re going home is precisely the same as when you first entered but with one vital change – a fantastic attention to detail that made me laugh on the way out.
It’s all superbly performed and sung, the music sounds superb, and Chet Walker’s recreations of Bob Fosse’s choreography are magnificent – edgy as Chicago and sexier than Cabaret. Definitely one of the best productions we’ve seen at the Menier and it should surely transfer somewhere after the run ends on 25th February. Go and enjoy!