It’s been a long time since I went to the theatre and smiled as hard as I did when I was at Pippin over the weekend. Transferring from Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester (somewhere I’m hoping to take a trip to this spring to finally see Spring Awakening), Pippin is playing at the Southwark Playhouse for four weeks only. Well now you’ve only got a couple of weeks to get your bums there and I’m going to tell you exactly why you need to take the trip.
Pippin was written in 1972 by the mastermind behind Wicked, Stephen Schwartz. It tells the tale of a young prince feeling unfulfilled in life, and wanting to make a difference. The leading player (played by both men and women throughout Pippin’s many reincarnations) takes charge of Pippins story, assisted by the troupe. In this particular production, the troupe is pretty small but it works incredibly well, especially for the size of The Large at Southwark Playhouse. The troupe, at times, is confusing (especially since this is a smaller cast and roles are doubled up), and it’s a hotly debated subject about what their real role is in this musical’s tale. The story never really takes off in my opinion, but that didn’t stop me from falling in love with this production. I knew what I was going into when I booked my ticket, and the storyline didn’t really cause me a big issue, although if I gave my reviews star ratings it would definitely have knocked it down. For me, this production was about seeing how this Stephen Schwartz classic could be made relevant 45 years on from its conception.
I’ve discussed recently how I’m not one for giving standing ovations, but Pippin had me on my feet for a number of reasons. Jonathan Carlton in the title role was a wonder to behold. The last time I felt that I saw a new talent destined to do well was watching Charlie Stemp in Half A Sixpence, and now he’s performing in Hello, Dolly on Broadway! Vocally, he’s brilliant, but it’s more than just being able to sing. He plays through the confusion of young adulthood that I’m definitely finding myself in right now, and it’s believable. Which isn’t always an easy role to play when the storyline is a little unbelievable. Every solo performance, my jaw was on the floor; he was utterly brilliant.
The leading player can be a difficult role to get right, and difficult to explain why without dropping some big spoilers. The leading player must be funny, serious and angry in pretty much every scene. By the finale, the leading player must show their true colours. Being one of the few gender blind roles in the theatre, in this version of Pippin, Genevieve Nicole gets this spot on. Let’s just say that I’m glad I wasn’t in the front row or I would’ve been terrified! Live theatre should be making me feel those things, and I think I’m becoming immune to the shocks of theatre on the whole. But the leading player got me thinking about what theatre is missing nowadays.
So we had beautiful leading cast members, but what about the players? The troupe of players was made up of just 8 other performers, bringing the cast total up to 10, with many of the players doubling up as other bigger roles including King Charles (Rhidian Marc), Lewis (Bradley Judge, who I saw in Yank! over the summer, and was just as entertaining in this as he was in that), Catherine (Tess Kadler), and Fastrada and Berthe (Mairi Barclay). Each player brought something fresh to the production, and I was truly wowed by the vocal and dance abilities of the cast.
An aspect of theatre that I’ve found myself noticing more and more as I visit the theatre is the lighting (it’s something that I really noticed at 42nd Street actually). Lighting is something we take for granted in the theatre, and with the tungsten halogen lighting ban, it’s really come to my attention. For me, the lighting design was a huge part of this production. Aaron J. Dootson’s design brought the atmosphere Pippin deserved and I’ve honestly never been so impressed at lighting in any theatre.
The choreography is fun, but the mood is dark. There is obvious manifestation of mental illness that isn’t quite touched on enough to make it an obvious key theme (which is a little disappointing, but at the time of its conception in the 70s, this was a far more taboo subject than it is now), but there are voices indicating both PTSD and depression. It’s definitely a difficult watch when you begin to look into the background of the original production.
I’m calling it now: Pippin is going to be in my top 5 shows of 2018. It’s a stunning piece of theatre that I urge you to see. I spent the entire show in awe of the cast, and I can’t believe that such a small cast can make such a huge impact. In 2013, the Pippin revival on Broadway starring Patina Miller as the leading player won a multitude of awards and I’ve been waiting to see a production – any production – of Pippin since. This differs significantly, but it works. In fact, the guy sitting next to me saw the 2013 revival and said that he preferred this production! This was a seriously unmissable show.
I have been blown away, and I’m really hoping I get the chance to revisit Southwark Playhouse before Pippin ends its run on the 24th March (and not leave it another 4 years until I return to London’s biggest fringe theatre, as last time I was there was for Dogfight in 2014)! I can’t wait to see what happens next with this production. I am speechless.