Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester; Tuesday 29th August, 2017
Pepin the Hunchback was a real historical figure who lived in the European Union some 13 centuries ago. Though his nickname was cruel and demeaning, Pepin didn’t have to tolerate too much crap from non-liberals as his dad was tougher than anyone else’s dad – this was none other than Emperor Charlemagne himself.
Fast forward to the 1970s and the legend of Pepin and his power-hungry father became the unlikely basis of a smash-hit Broadway musical called Pippin. Apparently writer Stephen Schwartz first conceived the idea when he was a student – one can only presume that he must have been on something at the time because the plot for Pippin the musical is really quite bizarre.
Split into two acts with a short break between them, Pippin as a story follows two very differing paths. The first half is a thoroughly enjoyable tale of a son despising his father and doing everything he can to rebel against him, the mood being lightened by plenty of gratuitous singing and dancing at every opportunity. But the second half conveys a completely different atmosphere: fuelled by a rather grim love story (which is just so annoying) and ending with a dramatic finale that can only be described as a performing actor’s mutiny.
If you’re expecting a feel-good story-telling experience where everyone lives happily ever after and sings about emotions and stuff this will not be it. But in a strange way, the infuriating dissatisfaction of not getting what you’re expecting is actually quite impressive. It’s quite an achievement for a musical to leave you in a bit of a grumpy mood, instead of the usually numbing sense of mild indifference at seeing everybody happy and in love.
Unfathomable plots aside, the performing cast are all excellent. With plenty of old-fashioned magic tricks and costumes that perfectly straddle the border between vaudeville and art deco, Pippin is a thoroughly entertaining visual spectacle. Good use is made of the dark confines of the performing space at Hope Mill with some excellent use of lighting and smoke effects. And there is more than just the visuals, the musical interludes are well timed and feel appropriate, the underlying story continues to flow smoothly (in Act I at least) and there is the constant sense of wanting to know what happens next.
There is something unique about Pippin, yes it’s a musical and as such it contains all the gltiz and glamour that you’d expect; but this is definitely a game of two halves and the unusual change of mood coupled with the shocking ending has the net effect of leaving multiple questions unanswered. Yes, this is a feel-good, let’s all sing-along together kind of show, but then it also seems to be some kind of tense thriller. It’s an impressive achievement, taking the genre of musicals into an unusual and unconventional place.