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Review: Pippin

Review: Pippin

Review: Pippin cover photo on Stagedoor
Where am I going? What does it all mean? When will I finally feel fulfilled?

I ask those questions of myself 10 times every day before breakfast and then get on with the business of putting out the dustbins and wondering whether three eggs will make enough scrambled egg for two people.

A couple of years before he wrote Godspell (although not produced until after) and many years before Wicked, composer Stephen Schwartz created Pippin (now at the Garden Theatre at the Eagle) in which the youthful anti-hero spends an entire musical pondering these questions. Before realising that putting the dustbins, or mending the roof, or playing with a child makes life worth living.

At the new Garden theatre in Vauxhall (what kind of mad optimist and dreamer opens a theatre venue during a pandemic?) director Steven Dexter and his six-strong ensemble get the best out Schwartz’s musical by using a pared back version and presenting it on a stage no bigger than three double beds. The fairy-light-lit covered courtyard weaves its own teasing ramshackle magic.

Tanisha-Mae Brown as Catherine, Dan Krikler as Charles and Ryan Anderson as Pippin. Photos by Bonnie Britain Photography.

With the smell of incense in the air, and a cast dressed as if they have recently arrived from San Francisco at the height of flower power, Dexter’s production may sometimes be ragged, but it is always intimate, heartfelt and unaffected and its plays up the melodic appeal of Schwartz’s score rather than the glaring deviancies of Roger O Hirson’s book. There are plenty of the latter, not least that Hirson seems to be doing his damnedest to ensure that we never really care for the musical’s titular hero, the teenage son of the ruler Charlemagne, who can’t accept his own ordinariness and wants to do and be someone extraordinary.

Nothing seems to satisfy Pippin: not education, sex or a brief stint in which he casts himself as a usurper of dad’s throne and a social justice warrior. This is certainly the only musical ever to use self-immolation as a meta-theatrical plot device. Not, I think, the wisest decision.

The songs, delivered with piano accompaniment and without amplification, are an effective mix of the sunny and the yearning and are always deliciously easy on the ear, even if Pippin’s emotional journey covers about the same distance as Vauxhall to Clapham Junction. Also, on the plus side this young cast are both talented and appealing and Nick Winston’s choreography doesn’t baulk at the limitations of the space and isn’t at all intimated by the fact that Bob Fosse did the moves for the original Broadway production.

This is real ensemble effort, but Ryan Anderson brings the right teenage Emo vibe to Pippin and I particularly enjoyed Joanne Clifton’s comic turns and Tsemaye Bob-Egbe as the manipulative Leading Player who wants Pippin’s story to follow a particular script.

In the end, of course, like Matilda (an infinitely better musical), Pippin has to write his own story.

In the pantheon of late 20th century Broadway musicals Pippin is a pretty ordinary rather than an extraordinary musical, and this revival won’t persuade otherwise. But in our own extraordinary lockdown times it is a small, precious gift to be reminded by Dexter and his team that there is real pleasure to be mined from the ordinary, in both musical theatre and everyday life. Right then, that’s me done and off to put out the dustbins.

Pippin runs at The Garden Theatre in Vauxhall until Sun 11 Oct. You can book tickets here.

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Lyn Gardner

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