For a dance form that began life in the badlands of Philadelphia, reputedly as a means of intimidating rival gangs, hip hop has made an impressive journey to respectability.
Only last month the Barbican appointed the London troupe Boy Blue as an associate company at the theatre, capping a year that has included a UK tour and an appearance on one of Strictly Come Dancing's coveted guest slots. Now Boy Blue's breakthrough production has been revived as the Barbican's Christmas show, and this in spite of a notable absence of sparkly costumes, hummable tunes, or even much evidence of goodwill to all men.
Pied Piper, Boy Blue's version of the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, is performed by a professional cast supplemented by kids selected from a project in east London schools. Based on Browning's poem of 1849, it updates the action to a 21st-century inner-city where the rats that are causing mayhem aren't the sort with claws and tails but Asbo'd-up boys and girls in hoodies.
In shudder-inducing numbers they scamper across Ultz's grisly set, an abandoned underground car park littered with black rubbish sacks and rusting white goods. These may be human vermin, but their rattiness reveals itself in crouching poses, blurrily fast hand-jive, and a repeated flippety jump that criss-crosses legs and trainer-clad feet as if they were spindly and claw-tipped. The performers might be shocked to know how close these moves come to certain steps in classical ballet.
This is not a subtle show. Ramming the message home, mocked-up TV news bulletins carry screaming headlines about knife attacks and gun crime. It might have been cleverer to have recited Browning's poem and let the audience make the mental leap. In fact, one stanza of the poem does feature as a rasping bass-voice rap, but is so overwhelmed by the music that it barely registers.
In place of Browning's ermine-gowned mayor and corporation are a quartet of suits with inflated papier-mâché heads, half Munch's Scream, half boiled egg. Their dithery little line-dance, passing a briefcase stuffed with banknotes from one to the other, makes an inspired shorthand for the ineffectualness of local councils. The decision to take on the Piper (the placid, almost pacifist Kenrick Sandy) is hardly taxing, after all, given his track record as a one-man Rentokil.
The long sequence that follows – a kind of danced personal CV – reveals, alas, the weak heart of the piece, as we revisit episodes of the Piper's former triumphs. I notice that the Vipers – a girl gang intent on pursuing the oldest profession – have exchanged their bras for belly-exposing leather jackets for this revival. Does that make it any less tacky when they target a businessman? (The mask the character wears bears an unfortunate likeness to Tiger Woods.)
Things pick up, inevitably, when the fighting starts, and the young dancers clearly relish the chance to display their free-style skills. Among the highlights are floor spins in which the spinner flips repeatedly from his front to his back, and a juddering single-hand handstand like a road drill. Later, the sight of school-age children powering through tightly synchronised mass routines with broad grins on their faces is simply joyous.
Yes, hip hop has variety, it has dynamism and virtuosity to spare. Usefully, it also has community appeal. Yet on the evidence of Pied Piper it has yet to find a narrative voice, or a way to forge real theatre out of episodic action. It will be interesting to see what develops from the Barbican's act of faith. A hip hop/kung fu fusion project is in the pipeline.
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