Without wanting to sound too much like a quote from Avenue Q, do you ever wake up and wonder what your purpose in life is? I’ve sort of accepted that, apart from the ordinary, maybe my life doesn’t have any real meaning and I’m not destined to change the world or be remembered for something special. But I’m an old(ish) bloke, and not a naïve, idealistic, young man, unlike the hero of Stephen Schwartz and Roger O’Hiron’s musical Pippin which opened this week at the Charing Cross Theatre.
Told by a group of performers and with the Leading Player (Ian Carlyle) directing and pulling the strings, this is the story of Pippin (Ryan Anderson), the oldest son of King Charlemagne (Daniel Krikler). He has been away at university and has now returned, ready to take his place in his father’s court and make his mark on the world stage. He knows he is destined for something amazing but, as yet, hasn’t worked out what it is. For a start, he thinks maybe he should become a great warrior like his father and half-brother Lewis (Alex James-Hatton) – the only son of Charlemagne and stepmother, Fastrada (Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson). But after taking part in his first battle, he decides that isn’t for him and flees to the countryside to get advice from his grandmother Berthe (Genevieve Nicole). As Pippin searches for his way to soar, he meets the widow Christine (Natalie McQueen) and her young son Theo (Jaydon Vijn) and his story starts to turn in an unexpected way, much to the disapproval of the Leading Player and his troupe.
Reading the programme, I was amazed that 2022 will be the fiftieth anniversary of Pippin’s first performance. The story, and songs still feel very contemporary, and you could easily imagine it being staged as a twenty-first century production with all the bells, whistles and video projection that have become the staple of West End shows today. But this production is described as pared back, with a cast of only eight and a two-piece band (Chris Ma, MD and keyboards and Sam Ainslie/Nick Hill on guitar). Almost like Pippin himself, the show is small in stature and big in aspiration. And boy does it deliver. Performed in the round with a fantastic set – designed by David Shields – that really pays homage to its late 1960s ‘flower power, summer of love’ roots. The theme flows through to the costumes giving us a wonderful troupe of happy hippies for whom the fourth wall is a social construct they can well do without. And I couldn’t move on without mentioning Aaron Dootson’s innovative lighting design which really enhances the space and the atmosphere of the performance.
Ryan Anderson really shines in the role of Pippin, a lovely combination of the angst of youth and the arrogance of privilege who could irritate but instead endears himself to the audience. There is a nice chemistry between him and Ian Carlyle’s Leading Player – especially during the intense and highly physical duet “Right Track” – and the two of them really dominate the show in exactly the way they should. However, it is impossible to discuss the players without mentioning the barn-storming performance of Genevieve Nicole as Pippin’s grandmother Bethe. “No Time at All” is my favourite number in the show and Nicole makes it the high point it is meant to be. A wonderful performance that really gets the audience to love this doddery old woman whose zest for life is not diminished by age. If I’m going to be really picky, I would say that the words on the banner were not that easy to read but, I honestly don’t think it matters one jot.
Director Steven Dexter, along with Choreographer Nick Winston, make full use of the performance space and really put the talented and hardworking cast through their paces. There were some lovely touches to the direction, which stood out for me. For example, the way the position of the Leading Player in the hierarchy of the players is emphasised as the others look to be picked for roles, and the gentle but effective moment when Charlemagne uses current social distancing rules to avoid hugging Pippin on his return from university.
Ultimately, while the story takes a darkly surreal tone in the second act, Pippin is a heart-warming show that reminds us we are all mortal and if we spend too much time looking for our purpose or legacy, we might just forget to experience and enjoy the life we have. I honestly can’t think of any aspect of this show that didn’t work for me. From the moment we entered the auditorium, seeing a quiet thoughtful Pippin sitting on the side contemplating his life, until the lights went down on Theo surrounded by the players, Pippin held me spellbound. And as I got my bus home, I was still singing “No Time At All” under my breath.
Review by Terry Eastham
With an infectiously unforgettable score from four-time Grammy winner, three-time Oscar winner and musical theatre giant, Stephen Schwartz, ‘Pippin’ is the story of one young man’s journey to be extraordinary. Winner of four 2013 Tony Awards including Best Musical Revival, ‘Pippin’ continues to captivate and appeal to the young at heart throughout the world.
Set in the ‘Summer of Love’ of 1967, we follow Pippin, a young prince with extraordinary dreams and aspirations on his quest to find passion, fulfilment and meaning in a joyful and life-affirming revival.
Adam Blanshay Productions,
Edward Johnson, and Steven M. Levy
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Roger O. Hirson
Directed by Steven Dexter
Charing Cross Theatre
London WC2N 6NL
Wednesday 30 June – Saturday 14 August 2021