Mark Ludmon reviews the new revival of Stephen Schwartz’s musical Pippin at The Garden Theatre at The Eagle in London
The Garden Theatre, London
When Stephen Schwartz’s classic 1972 musical Pippin was revived on Broadway seven years ago, it had a cast of 24. At London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2011, the ensemble was scaled down to 13. At the outdoor Garden Theatre at The Eagle this month, the show is performed by a cast of only six – and it works splendidly, not least because of what must be some of the most impressive choreography ever seen in a small fringe venue.
Due to social distancing, space is at a premium these days so the set and props are minimal in Steven Dexter’s entertaining new production. Running at 90 minutes excluding interval, the show has been skilfully trimmed back to its storytelling heart without losing any of the joy and magic of the original. Very loosely based on medieval myths about a son of the emperor Charlemagne (aka Charles the Great), it follows a young prince, Pippin, in his journey to find out what makes for a “completely fulfilling” life, hoping to learn how to balance the realities of ordinary life with the desire for something more “extraordinary”. Like Schwartz’s musical, Godspell, in 1971, the show is framed as a performance by a troupe of hippie players, but – with touches of meta-theatricality – the characters, or the actors themselves, try to break free of the narrative forced upon them.
Aside from the short interval, the storytelling never slows, performed with energy and clarity by the multi-talented cast alongside music from musical director Michael Bradley. Tsemaye Bob-Egbe is a charismatic and authoritative Leading Player, taking control of the narration like a director with a sinister tyrannical streak. Ryan Anderson is excellent as Pippin, restless and hungry to explore life, performing some of the biggest hits such as “Corner of the Sky”, “Morning Glow” and “Extraordinary” with great charm. But the show is very much an ensemble piece, with various other parts played strongly by Harry Francis (Lewis and Theo), Dan Krikler (Charles), Tanisha-Mae Brown (Catherine) and Strictly Come Dancing’s 2016 winner Joanne Clifton who adds to the comedy as the manipulative queen Fastrada and Pippin’s vampish grandmother, Bertha. She excels in the show-stopping number, “No Time at All”, encouraging us to sing along on the chorus through our face masks.
The show’s roots in the late 1960s is emphasised by the “hippie” costumes and tie-dyed motifs on the theatre’s walls, designed by David Shields, but the most visually stunning aspect of the show is its dance and movement, choreographed by Nick Winston. With playful references to popular dance styles of the 1960s, it is agile, subtly intricate and at times acrobatic, often threatening to burst out of the small performance space. At a time when many of us may feel as perplexed about the future as Pippin, this is a joyful and truly extraordinary revival.
Running to 11 October 2020