Regular readers of Caught in the Act will no doubt know of my guilty pleasure of musicals. I love a good song and dance, I do. However, the story of young Pippin and his quest to find meaning and purpose to life must have passed me by. It may not rank amongst the classics in my songbook, but a bit of digging and I’m astonished to learn that it has more than a bit of theatrical stature.
Pippin comes from the musical maestro that is Stephen Schwartz, whose works include Godspell and Wicked. Nominated for awards galore during it’s original 1970’s run – which was directed by the legendary Bob Fosse no less – it won awards galore when it was revived in 2013. Here’s a show that is big on theatrics and has had fans queuing on Broadway and London’s West End in it’s time. So, it’s intriguing that Hope Mill Theatre should choose this as it’s latest offering.
Pippin could easily find a home in one of Manchester’s more traditional theatres, such as the Opera House, Palace Theatre or at the Lowry. Those more established theatres could give the show the kind of stage and space that a big and bold show it aspires to be. The fact that Hope Mill is the venue for this ambitious production should not be ignored. Hope Mill have made it their mantra in producing a programme of musicals, with last year’s productions of Hair and Parade garnering a number of nominations.
What’s more, it’s fast becoming one of my favourite theatrical venues. It’s quirky off beat vibe offers the Manchester theatre goer something different from the norm. It revels in it’s Grade II listed premises, a former cotton mill, and thus makes it a challenging space for any would be set designer. Something that Maeve Black more than meets with an imaginative set, a runway adorned by footlight bulbs, with the audiences encapsulating it to give it an almost claustrophobic feel to proceedings.
The story of Pippin is one that fluctuates wildly. It’s intentionally disorienting in nature, an assortment of accents, characters that mesh uneasily, a concoction of musicality and dance. A play within a play, that bulldozes through that metaphorical fourth wall. This is no middle of the road musical which you can comfortably snuggle up to!
The small ensemble cast are sublimely in tune, through the numerous dance numbers they move and intertwine like olympic standard synchronization swimmers. Making sure everything goes seamlessly smooth is Genevieve Nicole as the Leading Player. It’s a tour de force of a performance, with more than a nod to Bob Fosse inspired characters of Sally Bowles and Velma Kelly. Vampish, burlesque and downright intoxicating, Nicole travails that line between being deliciously devilish and disturbingly evil.
Jonathan Carlton is also wonderfully cast as the titular character. He brings a lighter subtle touch to the production, with his affability charming the audience. There are also scene stealing performances from Rhidian Marc as Pippin’s father, and Mairi Barclay, who at one point had most of us singing in the aisles!
That first act is packed full of punch. There are heavy themes at play as Pippin tries to find his purpose. Social injustice, war, familial disputes, betrayal and murder (to name but a few) – all against a backdrop of gothic infused show tunes. I’d imagine this is what Shakespeare would be like if it was set to music.
Jonathan O’Boyle’s direction pays more than a homage to the original, that rock opera vibe is definitely this production’s heartbeat. Along with William Wheton’s adroit choreography, O’Boyle brings us a vaudevillian interpretation.
However, where I feel this veers off course is the change in tone for the second act. Whilst it is harsh to point out the production’s failings, for my issue are more with the story than Hope Mill’s production, that second act represents a sudden gear change. The suspense and tension that the first act worked so hard in creating, evaporates so easily in that second half. The story itself calls for that switch, leaving the audience indulging on scenes of gravitas in one act, to a far more whimsical setting to the other. To bridge that gap takes an awful lot of magic – a trick I don’t think that O’Boyle and its troupe of actors manage to quite pull off
This may have been the death knell for many a musical, but to it’s credit, Hope Mill’s production of Pippin survives this. It is not perfect by any means, but if you can overlook the odd flaw, it is an evening of self indulgence, some fine acting, delightful dance numbers – throw in a few rollicking, foot tapping, finger clicking tunes – and you may never view another musical in the same way as before!
Verdict: An intimate and intriguing musical, which owes just as much to Hope Mill’s eclectic setting as to the production’s delightful song and dance routines.
What: Pippin from Hope Mill Theatre
Where: Hope Mill Theatre
When: 29th August 2017