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posted/updated: 11 May 2018 - edit review / upload photos
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; book by Roger O Hirson
society/company: Sedos (directory)
performance date: 10 May 2018
venue: Bridewell Theatre
reviewer/s: Raymond Langford Jones (Sardines review)

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Photo: by Michael Smith

For a long while now Sedos has been noted for its sure touch with musicals. The company’s high standards are maintained in its current and accomplished revival of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin.

An Everyman character, Pippin charts the fictional wanderings of Charlemagne’s young son in search of himself and his destiny. As he keeps reminding us:    

     "I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free
Got to find my corner of the sky."

Recounted by a troupe of strolling players, Pippin is the sort of show that lends itself to directorial conceit – the 2013 New York revival put it in a Big Top complete with circus paraphernalia whilst the Menier Chocolate Factory reworked it as a computer game. At the Bridewell, director Chris Adams has gone for simplicity, setting the show in a ‘black box’ and making imaginative use made of two sets of movable metal steps. The performers are dressed in suitably glamorised contemporary attire, augmented by dressing-up-box hats and props to give it a ‘let’s do the show right here’ feel (well-chosen costumes by Clare Harding).

For London audiences, Pippin has seemingly been something of a marmite musical. Its original incarnation – directed and choreographed in the USA in 1972 and a year later in the UK by Bob Fosse – clocked up almost 2,000 performances on Broadway, but only made 85 in the West End, despite a cast headed by Paul Nicholas, Elizabeth Welch, Diane Langton and Patricia Hodge as Catherine (in her first major West End role). Other, more recent revivals have had their strengths, but have not always managed to make Pippin’s various strands totally coalesce.

With it’s an odd mixture of vaudeville and Brechtian alienation devices, its quirky style was best captured in Fosse’s original staging and choreography. Luckily, in this version, Paul Brookland Williams’ exhilarating dance-work pays loving tribute to the master within his own movement language – yet the hands and bowlers are all there! The company, most of whom are involved in all the major dance sequences, comprise an exuberant, technically assured ensemble.

Despite the comedy and lively dancing, Roger O. Hirson’s book reveals disturbing elements incorporating existential ideas within its picaresque storyline. This is most apparent at the climax when Pippin is given the chance to achieve glorious immortality, reinventing himself as light and energy and providing the show with a perfect, illuminating finale. There’s a Shakespearean feel, as well, to the sequence where he is persuaded to kill his tyrannical father who, thanks to theatrical magic, is brought back to life again when Pippin realises he’s not cut out to be a despot too. It was then that it idly crossed my mind, what might be the effect of Trump’s and Putin’s presidencies on their off-springs’ professional ambitions?

Originally conceived as a musical for students, down the years Pippin has been tampered with by the writers like Camelot, another show with magic and darkness in its melodic medieval mix. That was a work-in-progress until long after its official First Night. This production opts for the 1998 alternative ending.

Stephen Schwartz’s delightfully varied score – arguably his best – mixes ‘70s rock-pop tempos with some soaring ballads and even, at one point, a Gilbertian patter lyric. It is impeccably played by a band of twelve players under the baton of Ed Curry and well-sung by the cast. If I have a couple of minor quibbles they are that, on Thursday, the sound design weighted the band against the performers, thus drowning some of the lyrics; also, some of the actors must take care not to gabble – but I put this down to second night nerves.

Overall though, the performances are all secure and very engaging. As Pippin, Joe Thompson-Oubari is a quadruple threat: a strong, interpretative singer and very watchable dancer with the looks and acting skills to keep the audience on side, despite his character’s fluctuating moods as he journeys towards self-discovery.

We are obliged to wait as Pippin does, until the second half to meet Catherine, a young widow whom he realises, in the nick of time, can provide him with what he is looking for. To this role the delightful Charlie Welch brings humour and down-to-earthiness.

As the Leading Payer, Corin Miller commandingly holds the show together as Person of Ceremonies and works the audience well. Annie Houseago makes the most of her audience-participation song No Time at All, always the catchiest number in the show, bringing charm and warmth to her cameo as Berthe, Pippin’s life-affirming grandmother. Vicky Terry dances up a storm as Fastrada, Pippin’s evil step-mother. There is good support too from Paul Nicholas Dyke as Lewis, his ambitious but stupid brother, and Kris Webb as Charlemagne. Last night, Catherine’s son Theo was effectively played by Matthew Cise. He certainly made me believe his wooden duck was real and dying.

The outstanding lighting design is by Oliver Levett.

For my money the show is good enough to transfer West, half a mile up the road. Certainly, many of the cast could have a second string to their bows in the commercial theatre any time they wanted. It is good to see the company maintaining its justifiably high reputation for music theatre with such an enjoyable production of what can be a challenging show.

Photo: by Michael Smith

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