Pippin

February 27, 2019 | By | Reply More

★★★☆☆    Overambitious

Bedlam Theatre: Tues 26 Feb – Sat 2Mar 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

There is a great deal of vocal talent on show in the EUTC’s production of Pippin at the Bedlam. However, some ill-judged staging choices conspire against the production, resulting in a definite curate’s egg.

Stefan Schwartz’s 1972 musical is something of a curiosity, on this side of the Atlantic at least – certainly in comparison to his Godspell or Wicked. In the USA, the picaresque, wilfully episodic tale of Charlemagne’s son Pippin and his quest for fulfilment remain a staple of amateur and student productions.

Rob Merriam plays Pippin. Pic: EUTC

This is at least partly because the 1970s post-hippy self-help and self-actualisation of Roger O. Hirson’s rather opaque book is framed by the story of a troupe of wandering players. This gives it the air of a revue, which lends itself not only to routines in the manner of original choreographer and collaborator Bob Fosse, but any number of circus acts or other styles of performance.

So EUTC’s ‘radical reimagining’ of the piece as ‘fast-paced gig theatre’ is not so radical after all. In fact, the appearance of a troupe of boiler-suit-clad performers takes it all back to the piece’s roots in 1970s community theatre, with its ‘hey kids, let’s do the show right here’ vibe.


The most radical element of the production is the transformation of the Bedlam into an ‘in the round’ space, with only a couple of rows of seats remaining, plus some chairs on the other side of a platform built over most of the stage and auditorium.

This works well in immediacy, but the raised nature of the acting space occasionally means some of the action is hidden from sections of the audience. A more pressing problem is that the performers are difficult to hear when they are facing away from your particular seating area – which is around half the time.

gig theatre

This is exacerbated by that ‘gig theatre’ approach – which in essence means a live band at the back of the stage. Unfortunately, the Bedlam – like so many venues designed as churches, with high vaulted ceilings – is less than ideal for guitar bands. While the sound is fairly well handled, the singers, even when so close to the audience, can only be heard when using a microphone. Mics, of course, have a tendency to play up at the least opportune times, and any singers who are unamplified might as well forget it.

Hannah Robinson plays The Leading Player. Pic EUTC

All of this means that the story is a trifle hard to follow for anyone unfamiliar with it. Luckily, there is enough energy on show to largely overcome this. Co-directors Stella Green and Tom Whiston have crafted a decidedly pacy production; for every staging choice that fails to come off, there is one that surprises in a more positive way, and it all scores highly for sheer enjoyability.

Rob Merriam’s Pippin is an appealingly fresh-faced and glaikit presence; he does struggle with the range required from his songs but has an attractively vulnerable quality to his vocals.

The peculiar nature of the narrative – characters largely appear, sing a song and then disappear – does give large numbers of the cast a chance to show what they can do. Julia Weingaertner, as Pippin’s belated love interest, is both tuneful and funny – something that can also be said of Kirsten Millar (Pippin’s grandmother Berthe), who comes closest to a showstopper here.

Aplomb

Mia Tuxen (the calculating stepmother) and Rory Bayliss-Chalmers (Pippin’s half-brother Lewis) also have a good deal of comic nous,. Mica Anderson handles the difficult task of playing a child with aplomb, while Angus Bhattacharya’s Charlemagne has a great deal of presence, even if his characterisation is a little too throwaway to have the necessary gravitas.

Kirsten Millar plays Pippin’s grandmother Berthe. Pic EUTC

There is a certain tentative nature to much of what is on show. The musical is riddled with Brechtian alienation devices all of the way to its famous non-finale, with addresses to the audience that do not so much break the fourth wall as threaten to send the whole edifice crashing down. These are presented a trifle apologetically throughout, with the figure of the Leading Player crystallising this aspect of the production.

Despite the title, this is really the Leading Player’s story, and they have to be a charismatic, almost Machiavellian figure. While Hannah Robinson has the magnetism down pat – and is an excellent singer – the sheer manipulative glee of the character is missing.

There is a diffidence to a lot of the production that works against its apparent ambition. While the chorus numbers work fine, there is a genteel politeness to some of the dancing and singing that does not quite convince. Interestingly, the routines that work best are when Pippin’s sexuality is being awakened, as if the more sensual aspects require the company to cast off their inhibitions and really go for it.

Otherwise, there is a certain lack of oomph that reinforces that – for all the trigger warnings here about sex, death and war, and the supposed depiction of depressive illness in the title character – Pippin is really rather twee.

Running time 2 hours 10 minutes including one interval
Bedlam Theatre, 11b Bristo Place, EH1 1EZ
Tuesday 26 February – Saturday 2 March 2019
Daily at 7.30 pm

Information and tickets: Book here.

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