Book: Roger O. Hinson
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Director: Jonathan O’Boyle
Reviewer: Tate James
The Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester has had plenty of magic to do since it first opened its doors less than two years ago, and its latest in-house production is just as ambitious, and they mount the 1970s musical Pippin, by Stephen Schwartz.
Pippin is the fictional story of Medieval King Charlemagne’s son, who seeks fulfilment in his life at whatever cost. After a failed stint in the army fighting for his father, he turns to political rebellion against the tyrannical monarch and kills him, taking the throne for himself. Unfulfilled by the weight of the crown, he flees to the home of a widow and her son, establishing himself at the head of their table, only to realise that the weight of responsibility is just as heavy.
The concept of the show’s play within a play is altogether a different story. The Leading Player acts as our narrator-cum-ringmaster in a tawdry sideshow; magic tricks, dance numbers and audience participation interject at random, giving the piece the feeling that it is a collection of burlesque acts brought together at the will of Leading Player, who can’t wait to show the audience her big finale.
As Pippin, Jonathan Carlton is youthful and charming, with a contemporary pop voice which provides a subdued and alternative James-Bay-like quality to the musical theatre anthem ‘Corner of the Sky’, not at all like the belting tenor we’re used to hearing.
Stealing the stage at every entrance, Mairi Barclay is hilarious in the shared roles of Fastrada, Pippin’s provocative step-mother, and Berthe, his ageing grandmother. Barclay plays the vampy burlesque mistress in the sideshow with real tongue-in-cheek humour, and it’s almost a shame when Pippin moves on to pastures new and we don’t get to see these brilliant characters anymore.
Genevieve Nicole commands the entire production as Leading Player from her first entrance to her dramatic exit (no spoilers for the big finale!). Lithe and mysterious with legs for days and lungs for years, she is every bit the leader of the pack, with many a nod to the show’s original director/choreographer, Bob Fosse, in her stylised movements and Chicago-esque sensuality. In fact, her performance of the original choreography in the Manson Trio is effortless!
Admittedly the writing is weaker than the strong concept it tries to present and the songs aren’t altogether memorable, hence the need for as much spectacle as possible to pack a real punch.
On that note, Jonathan O’Boyle’s direction plays heavily on the sideshow component to bring us thoroughly entertaining magical elements and beautiful imagery, with inventive choreography from William Whelton and jaw-dropping lighting design from Aaron J. Dootson, who in turn brings Maeve Black’s stunning multipurpose set to life.
The creative values of the Hope Mill Theatre and Aria Entertainments are always on top form, which is why they are consistently making a noise in the world of small-scale and fringe theatre in both the North West and London. Pippin shows once again that they are capable of magic in the mill!
Runs until 23 September 2017 | Image: Anthony Robling