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Theatre review: Pippin 
2nd-Dec-2011 11:26 pm
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The thing about trying to review something is, if anyone actually is reading these they presumably expect at the very least to be able to tell if I liked something or not. But then sometimes there comes along a show where I couldn't for the life of me tell you if it's utter genius or a complete car crash. Which means it's probably both. Until now my entire knowledge of Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's 1972 musical Pippin (previewing at the Menier) was as a punchline in US sitcoms - I can still only hear the title in my head in the voice of David Hyde Pierce. Apparently the reason for this is that a sanitised version of the musical is a standard choice of school play in America, meaning professional revivals are rare in the US, and previously unheard of here. Director Mitch Sebastian attempts to revive its fortunes by reinstating the sex and violence into the story of Charlemagne's elder son who leads a rebellion against his father before setting off on adventures big and small. But he's also introduced a new high concept to the show, as the story is now a video game.

The audience enters via corridors covered in movie and video game posters (including a few in-jokes, like a Dr Horrible poster, what with Neil Patrick Harris having a history with the venue, and right at the end, of course, there's Willy Wonka) in the middle of all of which Pippin (Harry Hepple) is on his computer¹. After his acclaimed projection work on Sunday In The Park With George, Timothy Bird has done all the design here, turning the auditorium proper into the interior of a computer game, lasers defining the various areas of the stage. The combination of physical set and projection comes up with so many ingenious ways to recreate a computerised world that fades in and out and pixellates it's hard to fault. Pippin's fight with a computerised warrior and the reanimation of a severed head are cleverly done setpieces. Where Bird did come a cropper with me was as soon as the show began and the chorus entered looking like a cross between Tron and Starlight Express. As the show goes on it seems he's throwing in gaming references spanning from the birth of computer games to today (overhearing other audience members in the interval, it would appear gamers were getting a lot of references to specific current games that I was missing) so it's a shame that the initial impression (compounded by an early reference to Masters of the Universe) is so firmly 1980s, it kinda casts a shadow over the rest, leaving a lingering feeling that the show's not as up-to-date as it thinks it is, and might look ridiculous to teenagers. Silver catsuits are also never a good idea, although who knew pixels could get cameltoe?

Of course maybe I'm being critical of the design because they dressed this geeky version of Pippin as me. No, I mean actually as me - Hepple was wearing the exact same top I was, just in a different colour. I choose to believe this was simply because they were 2-for-£10 and they'll be getting through a lot of them, and not because it's a look that screams "spends too much time in front of the computer."

Schwartz is best known for Godspell and Wicked, both chronologically and musically this is closer to the former, peppy tunes with a bit of a rock guitar backing. Sebastian also choreographs the show but he's enlisted Chet Walker to recreate snatches of the original production's choreography. As this was by Bob Fosse, these sections feature the trademark bowler hat and cane, feet sliding across the stage, beautifully done by the cast and very entertaining, but in context providing yet another incongruous level of what-the-fuckery. The action is narrated by Matt Rawle as the Leading Player (here guiding Pippin through the game's levels,) with support from Ian Kelsey as Charlemagne, Frances Rufelle as Pippin's wicked stepmother, David Page (in a weirdly sexy bare-chest-and-spangly-gauntlet combo) as his stepbrother and Louise Gold as his grandmother, whose number involved a great deal of good-natured picking on yours truly in the front row.² They're largely left behind though as the story moves on to Pippin's realtionship with widow Catherine (Carly Bawden,) her son Theo (Stuart Neal) and his pet duck (a toy duck.)

All the cast sing well with Harry Hepple in very strong voice in the lead. I've also decided he's pretty cute, even if his hair did appear to get thinner with every scene. I also got a bit distracted trying to see what his tattoo was whenever his (my) shirt rode up - he's got one of those tattoos that's only slightly visible above the waistline, it's definitely a line of writing and by the end I was fairly certain it was in Hebrew. You're welcome, you get all the accurate, relevant information here, don't you?

Where on earth was I? To be fair my opening sentences should have given you a hint this review was going to be all over the place. Pippin is clearly a bit of a bonkers, sometimes creepy, oddly subversive show (WTF at the climactic scene!) and this new production only adds to the insanity. When it hit the mark I was entertained, when it didn't I cringed. I do recommend it, although whether that's because I think people will like it, or because I want someone to confirm I wasn't imagining it all, I couldn't promise you. I do know I'm fascinated to find out what the "real" reviews say.

Pippin by Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz is booking until the 25th of February at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

¹Hepple's back there in the interval so the poor bloke doesn't even get a proper break

²I've said it before: A proper professional vocal coach didn't believe tone deafness was an actual thing, until she met me. If I refuse to join in a singalong, I'm just doing everyone without a ten-foot radius a favour.
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