Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin recently enjoyed a Broadway revival, earning the rather grand circus inspired production a 2013 Tony Award. This latest London production, which has arrived via Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, is a little more constrained by the size of the Southwark Playhouse, yet director, Jonathan O’Boyle has managed to turn this modest setting in to a huge advantage.
A troupe of performers tell the story of young prince Pippin, who on returning from University finds himself disillusioned, and with ideologies distinct from his fathers. He sets out to find ultimate fulfilment, dabbling in war, art and politics along the way. The Leading Player keeps the troupe in order and regularly speaks directly to the audience.
Unusual for the Southwark Playhouse, the action takes place under a proscenium arch, the torn sheets are ripped away in the spectacular opening number, revealing a thrust stage edged in bare bulbs. Throughout the performance, Aaron J. Dootson’s lighting casts sharp shafts across the stage creating a wonderful milieu, complimented by William Whelton’s glorious choreography which seems to meld traditional Fosse moves with something more modern.
In the title role, Jonathan Carlton is sensational, bringing the character alive through precise movement and wonderful vocals, his version of ‘Corner of the Sky’ is the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. Genevieve Nicole, as the Leading Player, gives this Pippin it’s Vaudevillian edge, keeping everyone on their toes, and reminding us that this is a performance of a performance.
The most enjoyable scenes come when Mairi Barclay is on the stage, and luckily, she plays two roles, allowing us double the time to enjoy her exaggerated characters. Firstly, as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, where she has the audience in raptures during a sing-a-long, and secondly as Fastrada, who is this version is a rather brassy Scot. Now, some London audience members may feel this character is a little too farfetched, but I can assure you, take a walk down Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night, and there are plenty of Barclay’s Fastrada’s to be seen.
Much like the character of Pippin, this production is extraordinary, and also finds fulfilment in a more modest, and intimate setting. Having chosen to go with the extended (and better, in my opinion) ‘Theo Ending’, the audience do get a finale they’ll never forget to this bright, bold and soaring production.