Book by Roger O Hirson, music by Stephen Schwartz
Aria Entertainment, Hope Mill Theatre and Guy James Theatrical
Southwark Playhouse (The Large)
Pippin (or Pepin), who was known as “the Hunchback,” was the eldest son of the eighth-century emperor Charlemagne and that is who the titular hero of this show purports to be. But this isn’t a history lesson; it's a rather muddled fantasy about a young prince beset my depression as he fails to find any purpose in life, a bit like Voltaire’s Candide but bereft of his optimism, though like him Pippin finds peace in the simple life.
Roger Hirson’s book presents the story as performed by a group of travelling players with Pippin played by a new recruit. This production makes them a lively party of Pierrots led by a busty dominatrix strikingly played by Genevieve Nicole who has a powerful voice and a great personality. It is quite a performance, though over-amplification sometimes makes her lyrics incomprehensible.
The band’s volume could easily damage the eardrums, at least where I was sitting. Elsewhere, the balance with the band may have been better for people were laughing at lines that I missed, but it was a problem I heard others complain about. Perhaps the opening number explained why Maeve Black’s proscenium setting and light-circled thrust stage started off shrouded in tattered sheeting—but I hadn’t a clue why. Things got better when the cast went into character and dropped their American accents—with Rhidian Marc’s comic moustached King Charles having a delightfully Welsh one.
Jonathan Carlton’s Pippin is a gentle boy-next-door type with a university education, unlike his confident half-brother Lewis (dashing Bradley Judge), who is a more typical soldier princeling (though his father says he is stupid). Pippin wants to join them in fighting the Visigoths but can’t compete as a soldier. Horrified by war as the death of a soldier is turned into a magician’s trick, he becomes a bit of a pacifist.
Pippin goes off to the country to visit his grandmother Berthe. In “No Time At All”, the old lady tells him to enjoy life and live a little “cause spring will turn to fall.” It is a song that Mairi Barclay makes very funny, caricaturing sprightly old age; though missing the pathos behind it, it is a show highlight. In contrast, the actress also plays purple-clad stepmother Queen Fastrada, who wants to see her son Lewis as king.
Pippin looks for romance: “With You” sounds like a love song but is cleverly choreographed so that Pippin rejects a succession of women parading like burlesque girls with feather fans.
At the suggestion King Charles is a tyrant, Pippin leads a rebellion and even murders his father (though he’s brought back to life later), but his attempts to promote social justice, end war and abolish capitalism all come to nothing: when his country is threatened with invasion he puts the clock back. When originally written, at the time of the Vietnam War, the token pacifism and nod towards progressive ideologies may have had meaning but now seems to just to be joking. When he finds himself on a farm with widow Catherine (Tessa Kadler) and her little boy Theo (Scott Hayward) he seems to be settling as he attempts to save the boy’s ailing pet duck.
This fractured plot is best taken as pure fun with a succession of good tunes and lively dancing. Dance makes a big contribution: William Whelan’s sprightly choreography, which has echoes of Bob Fosse’s original production and (with permission) reproduces one number directly, is lively and jokey and this cast perform it with an edge that is witty.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton