Pied Piper, Barbican Theatre, London


The hip hop version of 'The Pied Piper' is a tale of fear, duplicity and revenge, but with Asbo'd hoodies instead of rats

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.

To 3 Jan (0845 120 7554)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing