I’d really enjoyed this production of Pippin in January with Caroline Quentin making a guest appearance as Berthe, so when the opportunity for a return visit arose during half-term, I decided to drag my god-daughter along on the pretext that she loves the same composer’s mega-hit Wicked and I really needed to see Louise Gold’s turn as Pippin’s grandmother.
My god-daughter is 18, but no matter how hard I tried she could not be persuaded to join me in a thirsty Thursday pre-show vodka and tonic, she opted for Jack Daniels and coke instead. The youth of today are very strange indeed, much like the premise and plot of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 musical. A medieval troupe of players enact the dark story of a young prince rebelling against his father, the king, on a quest to find the meaning of life and fulfilment, along the way discovering the futility of war and a boring normality with a widowed single mother. This has previously proved mostly unpalatable for British audiences, where it has never had a decent run, although it managed a healthy five years on Broadway.
In much the same way as Timothy Sheader did with Into The Woods at Regent’s Park in 2010, director Mitch Sebastian has rejuvenated the production and resolved many of the anomalies with a seemingly simple framing device. The majority of the action now takes place within a computer game, which the eponymous anti-hero, played with tortured wide-eyed innocence by Harry Hepple, is engaged in as the audience passes him on its way into the auditorium, which has itself been cleverly transformed so that we punters are virtually inside the action.
The Menier Chocolate Factory has assembled a stellar cast of West End veterans, including the magnificent Frances Ruffelle as Pippin’s scheming stepmother, Ian Kelsey attacking the role of Pippin’s unrefined regal father with gusto, Matt Rawle’s seductively malevolent lead player and the gorgeous & funny Louise Gold raising the roof as one in a long line of leading ladies of a certain age that have taken shots at Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, complete with a witty, one-size-fits-all, biography in the programme.
The original Broadway production was choreographed by Bob Fosse and this is echoed throughout and recreated wholesale during the paean to war “Glory”, to suitably gloriously gory effect. The design is visually stunning, with numerous video screens allowing us to witness both sides of "the game" and the band sound great too. I have read a few complaints about the volume, but it sounded perfect to my middle aged ears, having been weaned on seventies glam rock and punk. With phenomenal performances and a strong pop score, if the story was only a little more accessible, maybe a West End transfer would have been on the cards. As it is, this is a qualified triumph, a strange, but strangely successful reinvention and, together with last year's Road Show, a welcome return to form for the Chocolate Factory. My god-daughter loved it and we both agreed that Harry Hepple has the potential to be a major force in the West End in the not-too-distant future.
Booking until 25 February 2012. Extraordinary - Pippin