Sunday 29th January 2012
The Menier Chocolate Factory’s latest production is billed as a ‘radical re-working’ of Stephen Schwartz’s musical ‘Pippin’. We are not sure if we would go that far. The original story, such as it is, is a young man’s quest for a meaningful life, played out by a theatrical troupe. We won’t attempt to catalogue the plot here (or anywhere) but wikipedia has as much information as you’ll ever need. The radical part involves setting the action inside a computer game, with virtual ‘players’ replacing actors, and the different scenes becoming ‘levels’ in the game. Strangely enough, intriguing though this concept is, it doesn’t make any more sense than the original. Having said that, it doesn’t make any less sense either. The amount of sense remains precisely the same: none.
The great advantage of the ‘computer’ concept is the opportunity it gives to Timothy Bird and Ken Billington to go absolutely bonkers with the visual effects. The entire auditorium is fitted out in imitation concrete to create a blank canvas for the projections: single green lines tracing the outlines of doors and windows, fantastical back-drops, and computer generated characters which imitate and interact with the actors on ‘stage’, making the action flow between fantasy and reality with ease.
On the face of it, making Pippin a computer-obsessed teenager would seem like the obvious way to update the story. However, there are some important differences. Here, as played by Harry Hepple, he is more fantasist than adventurer, and he comes across as passive, a bit of a know-all, and not particularly likeable. Interestingly, Stephen Schwartz expressed some reservations about the character of Pippin being upstaged by the ‘first player’, particularly after seeing Bob Fosse’s choreography, so perhaps this problem is inherent to the plot.
The singing was universally strong in this production, with Matt Rawle and Frances Ruffelle in fine voice, delivering suitably over-the-top performances as the First Player and Fastrada. Carly Bawden, however, last seen by us in Umbrellas of Cherbourg was our firm favourite, with a pure and expressive voice. The production has incorporated some of the original Bob Fosse routines, using an ensemble of talented dancers, as well as bringing in new choreography, some of which cleverly mimics the movements of eighties style computer ‘characters’. Amongst the dancers, Holly James was particularly impressive, and Bob Harms deserves a mention for a number of amusing cameo turns, including a very funny attempt to convey love-making through the medium of interpretive dance.
So, are we talking Spectrum ZX or X-Box Kinect? We were interested to discover that the original show was partially financed by Motown Records, (which would explain why the Supremes did a version of ‘No Time At All’). Could this be the only known example of a musical being written to create pop hits, which would make it the world’s first reverse-engineered juke-box musical? We don’t know, but it certainly feels more like a revue than a musical with a properly written book (sorry Roger O Hirson). There is a journey of sorts, and many enjoyable numbers along the way, but we do not sense an emotional arc in Pippin.
Regular readers will want to know whether the Menier Chocolate Factory have managed to sort out their sightline ‘issues’. With this seating configuration, we were pleased to see that the offending pillar which had obscured our view when watching ‘Road Show’, was now part of the stage, and as far as we know, nothing important happened behind it. However, there was no rake for the first few rows, which meant that we had to view the bottom third of the action (and there was quite a lot of it) by bobbing and weaving between the heads in front of us. Add to this the inconvenience of being positioned at the end of the row, at an angle to the stage, which although we had a fantastic view of all the stage left entrances, required us to view most of the show over our left shoulders. Had we actually the paid full price of £33.50 rather than getting a £10 discount ticket, we would not have been amused. We’d prefer it if the Menier were a bit more honest about their restricted view seats, but as it is lastminute.com seem to us to have become their default restricted view outlet. We couldn’t help noticing on scrutinising the seating plan, that it allowed the management to squeeze in some extra seats, making a total of 190. But what’s the point, if you have to virtually do without a stage and end up selling off the excess tickets so cheaply? C’mon Menier, let’s go back to ‘normal’ seating, you know, seats where you can actually see the show.