Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Pippin - Menier Chocolate Factory, Friday 23rd November 2011

Pippin is the story of the French Prince Pippin, son of King Charlemagne. The show begins with the Leading Player and the other players (an acting troupe) inviting the audience to watch their magic as they help to tell the story. They then introduce Pippin as a young man just out of a university. He tells us how he is searching for the meaning of his life, Pippin's father welcomes him home from school. Pippin tells his father he wants to go to war with him. His father eventually agrees with him and we soon see them and some soldiers learning their battle plan.The leading player goes on to tell the audience about the virtues of war and about King Charles’ victory. The soldiers join him in "saluting" their King. Next, the leading player sings a song about how people need some small amount of happiness in life that wealth and fame can't bring you. By now, Pippin has decided that being a war hero is not what he wants to do with his life. So, he goes to his grandmother, Bertha, and asks her what she thinks he should do. She tells him to just live life to the fullest and to enjoy his youth because time goes by so fast. Pippin next looks to women to see if they are the answer to his life. He experiments with sex - symbolically, of course. The act ends with Pippin deciding to lead a revolution against his father.
After this we see Pippin's step-mother, Fastrada, as she plots to get her son, Lewis, to be the heir to the throne instead of Pippin. Pippin is now trying out a political life, revolting against his father and considering assassinating him. When he does do this and becomes the new King he decides that a peaceful time, without war and slavery, is long overdue. When he realizes that this isn't the right job for him, he prays to have his father return. The leading player magically brings King Charles back to life.
Pippin is by now very distraught about his failing search for a meaning to his life. The leading player tells him not to worry, he's on the right road to finding what he is looking for. At the end of this number Pippin collapses to the floor and a pretty young woman, Catherine, finds him and brings him to her house with her small son. She tells him that she is just an "average" girl. Pippin comes to live in her house and do household chores which he finds degrading because he thinks he is above that kind of work. Pippin and Catherine fall in love but when Catherine asks Pippin to become "the head of the household,he runs away.
Pippin has come to the end of the road and has no idea what to do next. The leading player tells him that the only way that he will be remembered now is if he kills himself. Pippin is afraid to do this because he knows that if it is the wrong thing to do, then it will be too late for him to do anything else. The leading player, Fastrada, and all the other players urge Pippin to go ahead and burn himself until he dies. They tell him to think about his life and all of the things he wanted from it. Pippin is almost convinced when Catherine and her son show up. He decides that he will settle for love and not commit suicide.

Leading Player – Matt Rawle
Pippin – Harry Hepple
Charles – Ian Kelsey
Lewis – David Page
Estrada – Francis Ruffelle
Berthe – Louise Gold
Catherine – Carly Bawden

Creative Team:
Libretto: Roger Hirson
Music and Lyrics: Stephen “Wicked” Schwartz
Director/Choreographer – Mitch Sebastian
Design: Timothy Bird
Costumes: Jean-Marc Puissant
Anybody who has the unfortunate task of sitting next to me while I suffer through another production of (for example) Jesus Christ, Superstar will know just how much I loathe 70s rock musicals. They’re so irredeemably naff – showing their age but not yet dated enough to become “period” (such as the big Ivor Novello or Noel Coward shows of the 1950s). No doubt to people a generation younger than me, Jesus Christ, Superstar is shit-hot retro. But I think that 70s rock musicals are just shit. And anyone who has had the patience to read the synopsis above will probably be only too happy to agree with me that the plot of Pippin sounds naff to the nth degree. It doesn’t even sound cheerily naff like the plot of Blondel Pippin just sounds awful. So what would you think when you found that you were going to see Pippin and it had received an 80’s makeover? Reader, your worst nightmare is only just beginning.

Yes, a particularly naff 70s rock musical has been reworked, rewritten and made “contemporary” by being updated to the early 1980s – the decade when every pubescent boy wanted a Atari Games Console in his Christmas stocking. Preferably with a “quest”-type computer-game – slow to load and even slower to play, with heavy, byte-eating graphics and, by today’s standards, laughably ponderous plotlines. Pippin, dear reader, is that quest game. The character of Pippin is now an 80s geek who is magically zapped into his Games Console (“Tron” is referenced not only in the new libretto but also in many of the production’s costumes). The “players” are now no longer of the type described as the “troupe of strolling” kind but that of the “games console character” type. The blank walls of the theatre are covered in projected 80’s games console-style graphics in order to provide scenery etc. Problem is, all the electrical wizardry necessary to achieve this aim, plus banks of enormous stage lights, plus the heat coming off a large audience packed very tightly together heats the small, fairly cramped auditorium to “High Noon on a Midsummer Day in the Kalahari Desert” temperatures. Lord only knows what the actual temperature was, but outside in the interval one can find large groups of sweaty, whey-faced people gulping down the cool night air while they fan each other with programmes and cling to the walls. As it was a fairly chilly night, I’d almost gone to the theatre wearing a jumper over my shirt and a T-shirt under it, but thank god I didn’t otherwise I might just have evaporated – or combusted – completely. As it was, I had galloping indigestion thanks to Him Indoors thinking that its possible to meet friends, eat a two course dinner in a popular restaurant in central London on a Friday night and then get to the theatre in a total of an hour and 15 minutes (I do like Taz as a restaurant and I’m really looking forward to finishing a meal there one day). So I was horribly, horribly uncomfortable.The Menier really need to review the space they allocate to each seat and increase this – they really do love to pack people in until one cannot shift slightly in one’s seat without incurring an accusation of inappropriate intimacy from one’s neighbour. If you’re on the end of the row, forget getting both your buttocks on the seat. You heard it here first.

If you want your plots to be cohesive and make sense, forget it. Updating the story has had no effect on this and it is crazily disjointed and incoherent. The only time you hear groups of previously unknown-to-each-other people actually making conversation is when they have all been involved in some kind of disaster; train derailment, earthquake or on the way out after a show is if its been so dire it beggars belief or nobody has understood a single word of what they have been watching – I heard lots of “What the Fuck was That All About?”-type conversations springing up, punctuated by shrieks of slightly hysterical laughter. Updating the production itself has merely managed to overlay 70s naff with early 80s naff, making it doubly indigestible (or maybe that was just the broad bean salad). Add an attempt at incorporating loads of Fosse-esque choreography (Bob Fosse choreographed the original production, and if you haven’t a clue who Bob Fosse was, he also choreographed Cabaret, so think bentwood chairs, bowler hats, “jazz hands” and cross-kicks) and you really have got a mess on your hands. The graphics are inventive and fun to watch for a while if you like that kind of thing but rapidly become tedious, and when webcam’d “chatroom” heads pop up and start conversations, they are incongruous, distracting, anachronistic (heavily Noughties) and just bloody irritating. God only knows what happens when the computers refuse to co-operate or someone inadvertently hits Ctrl Alt Dlt backstage – no show, presumably. Its bound to happen at least once in the run. Most of the costumes are standard “computer game character” style – a heavy and bewildering mishmash range of Shogun/Monghal/Harem Girl/Medieval European, with a bit of Tron/bag lady/Star Wars thrown in. The supporting chorus are all wearing skin tight grey body suits making them look like your standard computer game avatar in the preparation stage of the game before you get to choose its clothing. I bet the dressing room stinks already – Christ only knows what its going to smell like by the end of the run; the only way of getting rid of the smell would probably be to firebomb the theatre and rebuild.

Its difficult to pick performances out of the mess. Matt Rawle plays the Leading Player as a kind of megalomaniacal Tim Curry lookalike, all greasy black hair and teeth like a cross between Red Riding Hood’s Wolf and a piano keyboard. His diction is at times so bad that regardless of the fact that he’s miked and no more than 15 feet away, a lot of his words sound like he’s got a feather pillow over his face. The dialogue is so toe-curlingly naff (particularly towards the end) that I’m quite relieved that I can’t hear most of it. Harry Hepple is likeable enough as the ingĂ©nue-in-Wonderland title character looks uncomfortable and more than slightly embarrassed at what he has having to do to get himself through until another job comes up in the spring. Frances Ruffelle tries to turn the thankless role of Fastrada into a comedy turn from TOWIE but it falls pancake-flat against the high twaddle factor of the libretto. Nobody can really come out with any honours when the material is so excruciatingly bad. You’ll either love this or loathe it, and personally I think that the Menier has a dead duck on its hands of Paradise Found proportions. I’ve been wrong before and not afraid to admit it, but Pippin is a seriously rotten apple.

What the critics thought

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