Pippin, Menier Chocolate Factory, London (3/5)


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The Independent Culture

This is going to take some explaining, so bear with me. Pippin is a musical of bouncy, Seventies pop vintage, the score and lyrics by Stephen (Godspell; Wicked) Schwartz.

The idea is that we are watching a troupe of actors as they put on a show about the eponymous undergraduate son of Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, and his misdirected search for a truly significant life. “I've got to be/Where my spirit can run free/Gotta find my corner of the sky” is how he expresses his mission in the most- reprised and catchiest of the songs. The piece has a dodgy Leading Player and is so wilfully anachronistic that it makes the Haymarket's Lion in Winter look like the last word in furrowed fidelity to the medieval mindset.

Tricksy enough? Well, you'd have thought so. But that's not the half of it, or even the tenth, in Mitch Sebastian's startlingly bold – and deafening – revival at the Menier. Pippin (excellent Harry Hepple) is re-imagined as a geek who, shades of Tron, gets sucked into a quest-type computer-game. The bare walls of the theatre teem with restlessly inventive, mind-blowing graphics (designed by Timothy Bird) that simulate everything from dizzying Gothic naves to dazing Escher-like visual puzzles. No longer strolling players, the company is comprised of mutants who perform jerky Fosse-for-robots choreography. The prospective girls in Pippin's life ogle him from porn webcams (“u r the nicest boy I've talked 2”). One moment it's Clockwork Orange­-meets-Cabaret via Duran Duran; the next it's tweeting on Twitter.

Imagine The Fantasticks relocated to 2090 and set in a suicide chat-room run by androids. It feels that surreal. There are some definite advantages to the techno-approach. It makes the warped agenda of Matt Rawles's psychopathically smiling narrator seems all the more mountingly Mephistophelean. And it means that when Pippin finally comes to his senses and realises that the answer lies in the simple love of Carly Bawden's very touching Catherine and her son, the return to the bare human basics in a denuded theatre feels like truly a vertiginous plunge. Throughout, Harry Hepple sings well and is a sympathetic presence, recognisably of the same species as the audience. The disadvantage is that the emphasis on “levels” in a computer game highlights how the narrative progression in this show is too often arbitrary and lacking in tension. I admire the production's flair and chutzpah. I'm not sure that I could sit through it again.