BWW Review: PIPPIN, Southwark Playhouse

BWW Review: PIPPIN, Southwark Playhouse

BWW Review: PIPPIN, Southwark PlayhouseWhat to make of this strange show and its equally strange production?

Its pedigree is the stuff of musical theatre magic: Tonys in 1973 and again 40 years later; songs by Stephen "Wicked" Schwartz; and original choreography by Bob Fosse. This production enjoyed a successful run in Manchester last year. What could go wrong? Well...

We're with a troupe of circus performers, decked out in Cabaret-ish black and white (and hats) when the Leading Player, channeling the Puckish malevolence of Emcee, corrals the company into telling the tale of Pippin, the son of medieval Emperor, Charlemagne, and his challenges. (Though little actual history is used - this is not Hamilton).

In consequence, we see a series of scenes (the Leading Player continually cajoling her charges and us with the confidence of a dominatrix) in which Pippin: succeeds as a nerdish student; decides that he's a fighter not a reader after all; shags around a bit; deals with a threat to the succession from his half-brother; does what Hamlet couldn't and offs his father to grab the throne; ravages the country with an idealistic, Soviet-style collectivisation of agriculture; works on a farm for a year while having a fling with the farmer's widow before dumping her for no real reason; and finally confronts an existential crisis that has been flagged up by the Leading Player ad nauseum.

What's "real", what's the show within the show and what's in Pippin's head is never made clear - but it hardly matters anyway, as Pippin adopts so many different personality traits that it's impossible to get to know him and, therefore, impossible to care about him. Other characters are introduced and disappear with alacrity, giving the work the feel of a revue rather than a piece of coherent storytelling. (Quite how Roger O Hirson's book got a Tony nomination back in the day remains as mysterious as Pippin's finale).

For all the, let's face it, gobbledegook, of the plot, there are still some excellent set-pieces. As you would expect, Schwartz gives us some fine tunes, "Corner of the Sky" and "No Time At All" the standouts, with Jonathan Carlton's sweet falsetto and Mairi Barclay's full-blooded belt, a delight to hear.

When we can hear that is. All the cast fight (and mainly lose) with an absurdly over-amplified band, particularly bass and drums, which simply overpowers the voices. Whilst this might work at a gig or even in some of the more rock-oriented numbers, pretty much every lyric was inaudible to me. This is musical theatre and thus unforgivable really.

And, though I know it's the Dark Ages, did the lighting have to be quite so bleak? I lost count of the number of times actors were singing in unlit spaces, the full stage almost never fully illuminated, lending even comic moments a melancholic drag.

Alas, the Fosse-tribute costumes didn't really come off either - the stockings and suspenders, the basques and the boaters jarring with hay bales and thrones. Too often the cast looked like they'd wandered in from a much more exciting show in this venue's studio. The dancing was energetic, but lacked the precision Fosse would have demanded - not that we would have been able to see it had it been there.

So a confusing story was told by performances of songs the lyrics of which were inaudible on a stage at least as dark as it was light. I'm afraid you got to get all that jazz right if you want a show to succeed - especially one as variable in tone and as garbled as this one.

Pippin continues at Southwark Playhouse until 24 March.

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From This Author Gary Naylor

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