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'Pippin' review

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • 2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

An atmospheric revival of a thoroughly muddled musical

Long before he pretty much won both Broadway and the West End with 'Wicked', Stephen Schwartz wrote this strange, slighter slice of musical theatre fantasy. 'Pippin' is still a hit in the US, probably because productions bolster its story with industrial truckloads of circus artistry and special effects.

Transferring to Southwark Playhouse from Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre, director Jonathan O'Boyle's production is more intimate. Smoke, candlelight and gently impressive magic tricks create an atmospheric, vaudeville-tinged frame for the cast's strong vocal performances. Whatever else you can say about 'Pippin', it's got some great tunes: as the title character, Jonathan Carlton's rendition of 'Corner of the Sky' is memorably sweet. Playing Pippin's fearsome granny, Mairi Barclay makes mincemeat of 'No Time At All' - but it's characteristic of the perverseness of this show that it throws one of its best numbers at a character who only appears for one scene.

The show is essentially a musical bildungsroman, aka a story of a young man's personal growth. If that sounds a bit dry, it kind of is. The tunes and turns are shoe-horned into a muddled story that involves a lot of Pippin flouncing about in despair, rebelling against his all-powerful Dad, the emperor Charlemagne, and trying to find an outlet for what we're constantly told are his very great talents. But as a character, Pippin isn't especially likeable, and Carlton's sullen, faintly colourless performance doesn't help that. And the rest of cast can barely take this stuff seriously, cramming in winks and nudges to the audience that totally undermine Pippin's eventual romance with a personality-free local widow.

For a product of Vietnam-era America, 'Pippin' is oddly conservative. This spoilt prince flirts with Marxism for about two seconds before deciding that changing the world is futile. It's also surprisingly prudish for a show where almost everyone's wearing fishnets: here, Pippin is vaguely coded as gay, but that hardly explains why he rejects sex of all kinds. A 2011 revival at Menier Chocolate Factory had a go at making sense of all this by turning Pippin into a bewildered nerd, trapped in a video game.

Without the same internal logic, this revival is musical theatre for hardcore musical theatre fans: a showcase for schmaltz-y, jazz hands-ridden dance numbers with all the sequinned trimmings. With this much magic to do, the story's all but an afterthought, but Schwartz's songs are served up in style.

Written by
Alice Saville


£14-£25, £20 concs
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