Music and Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Book: Roger O. Hirson
Director: Steven Dexter
As theatre sputters back into full life, the brief reopening of outdoor venues in the autumn of 2020 is but a memory. But it’s one that is dominated by a production of a Broadway musical that got pared back to a scale that allowed it to fit in a pub’s beer garden, and was all the better for that.
That production of Stephen Schwarz’s Pippin is back indoors now, revived, revamped and larger – but with the same sense of mischievous fun that made the Garden Theatre’s run so delightful. Designer David Shields’ 1960s hippie setting, largely limited to costumes in last year’s production, spills out into the staging and decor of the Charing Cross Theatre’s circular stage, providing a visually sumptuous backdrop to proceedings.
This time round, the troupe of travelling artistes that are playing out the story of Pippin are led by Ian Carlyle as the Leading Player. It’s a role that has been played by women in many productions of late, starting with Patina Miller’s 2013 Broadway turn and continuing up to this production’s original run. Returning the role to a male performer leads to a very different kind of seductive charm between the Player and Ryan Anderson’s Pippin, helped by Carlyle’s charismatic performance.
Elsewhere, Genevieve Nicole (herself a Leading Player in the Southwark Playhouse 2018 production) threatens to steal the show as Pippin’s outrageous grandmother Berthe. She only appears for one number, the fun No Time At All, but Nicole so deeply imprints a message of silliness and fun that it forms an effective counterbalance to the rest of Pippin’s story, which, as directed by the Leading Player, leads him to some very dark places.
For while Act I is mainly a comedic tale of life in a Medieval royal court, and young prince Pippin’s struggle to fit in allies with the anti-establishment counterculture vibe of the production’s 1960s setting, the second act alters the mood. Pippin becomes a more serious, but no less trippy, tale of Mephistophelean manipulation, as the Leading Player attempts to steer Pippin to the “ultimate finale” – an act of self-immolation that will end in his death.
Like many titular characters, Pippin is often overshadowed by the larger-than-life colour of the supporting characters in his own story. Anderson keeps the character centred, though, ensuring that he is the axis around which the whirligig players revolve. Even in the second act, when Pippin is confronted with a life of monotony and repetition as he meets widowed farmer Catherine (Natalie McQueen) and her son, Anderson’s charm prevents that monotony from being felt by the audience.
There is perhaps less sense than there should be of the struggle at the heart of Act II – that Catherine’s role is going beyond the Leading Player’s script, and threatening to write a new ending for the character he is hoping to ensnare – is one of any peril. And a magic trick intended to set up the Leading Player’s desired finale, which worked well in the close-up atmosphere of a pub garden, falls flat in a larger auditorium.
That aside, director Steven Dexter has scaled this production sensitively, allowing the larger indoor space to give the musical more room to breathe while retaining the small-scale charm that made it such a winning production last year.
The musical concludes with the play’s new ending, first staged some 25 years after Pippin first debuted, which suggests that the troupe’s attempts to capture Pippin’s soul are just part of a longer, ongoing cycle. One can only hope for such longevity for this production of Schwarz’s work, for it feels as if Pippin has found a staging which suits it to a tie-dyed T.
Continues until 14 August 2021