Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester.
29 August 2017.
Building on its reputation as Manchester’s hotbed of musical theatre Hope Mill Theatre plays host to a revival of Stephen Schwartz’s 1970s musical ‘Pippin‘. A sort of play within a play, acted out by a wandering troupe of performers, it tells the story of a young prince (named Pippin) struggling to find his way in the world. It’s a deceptively light looking confection that conceals several tougher layers
Within Hope Mill’s old industrial brick walls Maeve Black has created a run down Vaudevillian music hall setting. The stage dominates the space, with the audience pushed up tightly on three sides and a gaudy gilt proscenium arch to accommodate the cast and musicians. The actors wear black and white theatrical costumes, a jumble of laced up corsets, frilly bloomers, leotards, ruffs and tight breaches. It’s deliberately austere from the opening sounds of dripping water, to the ripped cloth backdrops and the plain light bulbs blazing individually around the stage edge.
The show’s musical stylings are of its time – divine decadence meets new age aspiration. Helmed fiercely by Genevieve Nicole’s Leading Player who introduces characters, sets out context and keeps things in check, the first half is all snap and fizz. Things move quickly, scenarios switch rapidly as Pippin’s youthful focus shifts, characters pop up and go and the song and dance is at full throttle.
Refreshingly, beyond the Leading Player’s commanding Broadway purr, the other characters adopt a range of accents. In this disunited kingdom, a Scottish stepmother encourages the English prince to kill his Welsh father. The various different voices create a sense of dislocation (this could be set anywhere) while allowing the cast to focus in on being clearly heard vocally as opposed to wrestling with some uniform showbiz transatlantic drawl. To an extent it even adds something to the characterisation. Tessa Kadler’s strong-willed northern widow Catherine, both vulnerable and rebellious, is instantly recognisable to us from the pen of the Brontës all the way through to the cobbles of Weatherfield.
The 10 strong cast is hard-working and cohesive. As Catherine, Kadler creates some beautifully tender melodic moments in the second half. Mairi Barclay gets two chances in the spotlight, as Pippin’s sparkly grandmother Berthe and scheming stepmother Fastrada, and she doesn’t waste a moment of them. When three men lift her up and carry her off stage as her second solo number climaxes you suspect it’s a cast plot to stop her stealing what is left of the rest of the show. As the Leading Player Genevieve Nicole has to carry the weight of the exposition and is often just getting warmed up before being absorbed in to a company number or stepping aside to let someone else shine. Fortunately, ‘Glory’ and ‘On The Right Track’ allow her to cast off the chilly sophistication, power up and show off her big voice and incredible dance skills. Jonathan Carlton’s Pippin is symbolically the only character in modern dress. He starts the show as part of the audience and as such the implication is that his journey could be ours too. His refreshingly contemporary and engaging performance reflects that – Pippin’s restless yearning and increasing confusion in the middle of the bright lights, clamour and noise are totally convincing.
Occasionally playing homage to Bob Fosse, choreographer William Whelton has created a witty and charming style for the show including glimpses of ballroom, ballet and even a hoedown. Some great group routines playfully incorporate magical sleight of hand and props such as hats, canes and piles of books. There are touches of humour – at one point Pippin reaches the high notes in his song with the help of several dancers stroking his crotch with their feathered fans. Even the slick recreation of Bob Fosse’s ‘Manson Trio’ routine to accompany a song glorifying war is given an added dimension, taking place in front of black and white newsreel showing the true realities of conflict.
The light frothy first half is deceptive. As it approaches the interval and Pippin coolly slays his father, it still comes across like some sort of hokey hum-along-a-Hamlet. There’s a small reminder of the different rules operating here when the actor playing the recently murdered father reappears to lay the crown atop the new King Pippin but otherwise it feels like a crowd-pleasing fairy tale reinvented for an adult audience. However as a show Pippin has quite a trick up its sleeve, with a more moody and increasingly unsettling second half which heads eventually into a gathering darkness. Without giving too much away, characters come back to life, the Leading Player glides from sophisticated to sinister and some of the company start to step outside their assigned roles.
Director Jonathan O’Boyle’s decision to strip the show back pays dividends, creating a tightly focused production better able to shift shape and maintain momentum as it sheds its simple pleasures and heads towards a two-pronged ending both hopeful and ominous. O’Boyle’s ‘Pippin‘ is a carefully crafted show full of eye-catching detail and slick song and dance. It artfully razzle dazzles you all the way to its thought-provoking finale.