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A CurtainUp London London Review
by Sebastian King

I believe if I refuse to grow old, I can stay young ‘til I die. /i> — Berthe
Hasrry Hepple as Pippin and Carly Bawden as Catherine
(Photo: Tristram Kenton)
When David Babani announced Pippin as this year’s Christmas musical at the Menier Chocolate Factory, many people were surprised. With its chequered performance history, and bizarre plot, Hirson and Schwartz’s 1972 musical did not seem the most obvious choice to follow in the footsteps of previous Menier successes A Little Night Music, Sweet Charity and La Cage Aux Folles to name but a few.

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.

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Book by Roger O. Hirson
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed and choreographed by Mitch Sebastian

Starring: Harry Hepple, Matt Rawle, Ian Kelsey, Frances Ruffelle, Louise Gold, Carly Bawden
With: David Page, Stuart Neal, Ben Bunce, Bob Harms, Holly James, Anabel Kutay, David McMullan, Kate Tydman
Original Bob Fosse choreography recreated by Chet Walker
Production Design: Timothy Bird for Knifedge
Costume Design: Jean-Marc Puissant
Musical Director: Tom Kelly
Lighting: Ken Billington
Sound Design: Gareth Owen
Orchestration and Musical Supervision: Simon Lee
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including one interval
Box Office: 020 7907 7060
Booking to 25th February 2012
Reviewed by Sebastian King based on 7th December 2011 performance at Menier Chocolate Factory, 51-53 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU (Tube: London Bridge)
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Magic to Do – Leading Player and Company
  • Corner of the Sky – Pippin
  • Glory – Company
  • Simple Joys – Leading Player
  • No Time at All – Berthe
  • With You – Pippin
  • Spread a Little Sunshine – Fastrada
  • Morning Glow – Pippin and Company
Act Two
  • On the Right Track – Leading Player and Pippin
  • There He Was - Catherine
  • Kind of Woman – Catherine
  • Extraordinary – Pippin
  • Love Song – Pippin and Catherine
  • I Guess I'll Miss the Man – Catherine
  • Finale – Leading Player and Ensemble
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