Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
Pippin closed this weekend at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre with, yet again, this Northern powerhouse of fringe theatre delivering a stunning take on a Broadway Tony-winner.
Written by a young Stephen Schwartz in the 1960s, Pippin is an improbably glorious fusion of style and philosophy. The young lad of the title was the real-life son of the Middle Ages’ King Charlemagne who, in pursuit of a possibly futile attempt at social improvement, murdered his father. The show is as much about politics and tyranny as it is about a young man’s quest for himself although, in all honesty, the plot actually defies any further description.
Good musical theatre hangs on a study of the human condition, expressed through song and dance and with the story of Pippin being such a mind-boggling take on humanity, it can only really work when performed to absolute perfection. To his credit, Jonathan O’Boyle assembled a wonderful company to do just that.
Genevieve Nicole put in a towering performance as the show’s Leading Player, a troubadour who drives the narrative, dancing in and out of the show’s fourth wall. Vocally flawless, impeccable in her dance and movement, and with a stage presence that redefined compelling, Nicole whipped both cast and audience into shape. Bringing a smouldering sexuality to her turn, with an aura that suggested Joel Grey’s Emcee in Cabaret, her Leading Player provided the energy that propels the show and deserves recognition in the UK Theatre Awards.
As Pippin, Jonathan Carlton captured just the right combination of bungling nervous naïveté, alongside an emerging sense of purpose and self-belief. Carlton was also handed two of Schwartz’s finest songs ever, with the first half’s Corner Of The Sky and Morning Glow – tender perceptive lyrics and swooping melodies that soar through some of the most intoxication key changes in the canon.
Jonathan CarltonThis Hope Mill company dripped with standout performances. In a coup de theatre, Mairi Barclay played both Fastrada (Pippin’s stepmother) and Berthe (his grandmother). As Fastrada, Barclay exuded a beautifully (and hilariously Glaswegian) voiced provocation to her husband’s barely controlled libido – while in playing Berthe she stole the show with her bow-legged interpretation of No Time At All. This particular song’s lyrics are the are one of the most perceptive testaments to old age and if there is but one criticism of O’Boyle it is that he axed one of its verses. If Pippin transfers to London (and to misquote Berthe, I hope that it surely does) this omission should be re-instated.
Appearing in the second half, Tessa Kadler’s Catherine took one of Schwartz’s most challenging characters (a young widowed mum who introduces Pippin to love) and offered up a perfect interpretation. The Love Song duet between the pair is a delightful interjection of carefully crafted romance amidst some of the plot’s latter quirks and quacks.
Alongside O’Boyle, his creative team have proved equally wondrous. William Whelton’s Fosse-inspired choreography is spectacular (the routine in Glory proving particularly impressive) – with fine onstage leadership from his dance captain Olivia Faulkner. Lighting the show, Aaron Dootson made imaginative use of marquee style footlights as well as neatly arrayed lighting banks that with well deployed smoke transformed the old mill into a Vaudevillian playhouse. Upstage, Zach Flis’ 9 piece band were spot on in their handling of the score.
If transfers are being considered, this production would sit beautifully in London’s Southwark Playhouse, but Pippin is over now and its players have moved on. They should however be a troupe that is very proud of what they have achieved: creating another masterpiece of musical theatre on the nation’s fringe.
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard