Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson’s hit 1970’s musical Pippin, now showing at the Southwark Playhouse after a successful run at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, is guaranteed to raise temperatures on even the snowiest of evenings.
Bar a brief revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2011, this is Pippin’s first return to the London stage since 1972, and this exuberant production, boasting a near pitch-perfect ensemble and a gut-busting vocal repertoire, ensures that it’s a triumphant one.
The plot centres on Pippin, son of medieval Emperor Charlemagne, whose efforts to discover what it is that will make his life a fulfilling one, takes him on a journey from battlefield, to throne, to farmyard. The ‘story’ of Pippin is deliberately thin, often bemusing stuff, but the troupe of players who perform the tale provide it with spiky, stylish structure, with William Whelton’s choreography paying great homage to Bob Fosse’s original staging. Genevieve Nicole as Lead Player is outstanding – louche, hip-swinging scene stealer who, as puppet-master to Pippin and her troupe, manages to match outrageous allure with sparkling malevolence, and is sweetly sinister when players decide to take the action into their own hands.
Pippin gallops gamely up and down the full gamut of emotions, but director Jonathan O’Boyle handles the production’s tonal shifts skilfully, teasing out the bleaker moments amongst the handfuls of feather and glitters. There are all the things we might expect from a traditional coming of age story, including swagger and sexual adventure, but darker moments come when Pippin must confront his war-mongering father, and when he becomes mired in despondency at not having discovered his true calling in life. The influence of the players themselves on Pippin’s life becomes murkier as the play progresses, particularly when they try to tempt him into a real hero’s ‘finale’, and this revelation of the troupe’s more sordid side throws some of the productions jauntier Vaudevillian qualities into smart relief.
Jonathan Carlton is winning in the titular role, and his clear, assured vocal performance makes the production’s big-hitting musical numbers ‘Corner of the Sky’ and ‘Morning Glow’ definite new earworms for me. There are no weak links in this cast, with the entire ensemble displaying a wonderful sense of comic timing, and the dexterity of the physical performances are matched by the energy and intensity brought to supporting roles. Mairi Barclay is a particular joy as both Pippin’s conniving nymphomaniac stepmother Fastrada, and his doting grandmother, the wobbly-kneed, salacious Berthe (“Pfiffin!”), who cajoles the audience into a rousing sing-a-long celebrating the joys of life, is the highlight of the first act. Rhidian Marc also brings a hugely enjoyable cloak-swishing, boot-stomping bravado to the role of Charlemagne, and Tessa Kadler is assured as the sweet and not-so-simple Catherine, the woman Pippin eventually realizes he’s been searching for all along.
At times, Pippin’s exuberance felt almost too much for Southwark Playhouse’s The Large to contain (I swear the walls must have been bulging) – but then that’s the whole point. This joyful, frenetic, baffling production is supposed to burst its confines becoming much more than the sum of its parts.
Pippin is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 24 March 2018
Photo: Pamela Raith