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Pippin. Southwark Playhouse

March 28, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 24th March 2018).

This piece of whimsy makes its way to a prestigious London fringe venue having originated in an equally prestigious Manchester one. The partnership between Hope Mills and Aria Entertainment has already borne fruit, and magic has now been done at both ends of the country.

Ostensibly the story of despot King Charlemagne’s younger son Pippin, a dreamer trying to find his own “Corner of the Sky” and perhaps do some good on the way, this is really a fantasy of short episodes as told by a travelling theatre company.

The difference in this production is director Jonathan O’Boyle and his team’s decision to go with a “Victorian Playhouse” setting, a pretty proscenium arch and thrust stage with the ladies in fishnets and all in monochrome (Maeve Black). Clever stage inlays and a lot of streamers, a pair of ladders, bale of hay and a few hand props are all that is required to get us through the evening, visually.

Leading Player (Genevieve Nicole) has an extensive professional CV, and her experience shows. Truly horrible ‘biscuit tin’ sound cost me both her opening number and dialogue, and also my attention. As the show continued (and the sound mix improved exponentially), her hard work – particularly “On The Right Track” set me back on it.

An equally horrible start for the title character followed, the iconic “Corner of the Sky” lost to sound cloud for Jonathan Carlton (Pippin). His crafty swig of water on the stairs by my seat didn’t endear either, but again, as he was allowed to re-wind his life on stage, so his performance displayed a depth that grew ever more touching as he found love with Catherine (nice solo from Tessa Kadler) and son Theo (Scott Hayward in a heartfelt few moments).

As comic relief, Mairi Barclay was handed the perfect advantage of playing both stepmother and grandmother to Pippin. Dramatically, her Fastrada – the scheming mother – had the edge for her to run with, particularly faced with effectively despotic Charles (Rhidian Marc). Her joyously rambunctious Berthe gave her full reign to grow old disgracefully, and involve the audience with vigour.

Bringing up the rear of the family, Bradley Judge (Lewis) is a perfect bone-head… and that’s meant in the nicest possible way.

Also worthy of mention were hard-working Michelle Andrews and Ellie Seaton, the players responsible for providing everything from glamour to practical support of a movie screen.

The last is perhaps the production’s only true mis-step. A certain incongruity about real soldiers going to their deaths, in a stage musical. Bordering on tasteless even if the song is about war.

Stephen Schwartz’s show has a long track record with the American public. It’s beloved and been a smash hit on Broadway, twice over. For this Brit at least, it’s rather more in the “Finian’s Rainbow” category – acknowledged as a classic, but trickier on the British palate than over the pond. It’s not just sugary and lighter than duck down, it also takes a while to display its raison d’être. Once it hits its stride and justifies itself on its own terms, though, it is a relaxing couple of hours, given here a wildly inventive interpretation.

Hopefully, a forerunner of even more successful transfers to come from the partnership.

4 stars.

 

 

And that’s it for this season. Taking an Easter break – so Happy Easter to all Christian readers. Back on 18th April 2018.

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