I can’t help thinking that the Menier Chocolate Factory is a victim of its own success; lately too many shows have been chosen for their ability to transfer to the West End, and too many have disappointed since the genius reworking of ‘Sunday In The Park With George’. Now comes the Stephen Schwartz/ Bob Fosse seventies’ staple ‘Pippin’, which nominally concerns the son of the emperor Charlemagne.
I saw the original in 1974, with production design consisting largely of knotted string and a cast of embarrassing white-faced mimes, and it was very much of its time. The problem was that the favoured format of the period was surrealist cabaret, and the subject, self-assessment and the learning of life lessons on the road to fulfilment, was as seventies as a rainbow sweater. It bombed in London first time around, but then so did ‘Chicago’.
Now radically redesigned by Timothy Bird for Knifedge, we’re passing through the bedroom of a bored teenager to land on the set of ‘Tron’, with lasers, projections, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, online sex ads, pulsing neon, tromp l’oeil visuals and thumping techno. Quite what any of this has to do with the eighth century emperor of the Romans is anyone’s guess, but it’s a beautiful looking production that never bores.
What ultimately destroys the show, though, is the slenderness of the original book, which is an everyman tale of personal growth with no actual characters to care about, and a score which is very, very far from Schwartz’s best, boasting a single that Michael Jackson covered (mercifully raced through at the start, as if to get rid of it) and a novelty song from Pippin’s gran.
There’s some good Fosse-esque choreography and lots of gorgeous whizzing graphics, but the ending (we are promised sights we have never seen) is the classic seventies cop-out of stripping away the artifice to leave the unadorned man alone onstage, and it simply doesn’t work anymore. Although perhaps theatre neophytes will find pleasures here.
Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. It’s all so beautifully put together. But there are so many other better shows worthy of revival – Peter Nichols’ devastating opium-wars panto ‘Poppy’ being one – that the choice of ‘Pippin’ remains a complete mystery. Okay, Schwartz’s ‘Wicked’ is still running, but who now remembers ‘Godspell’ or ‘The Magic Show’?
As I sat watching so much hard work put into a show that has so little to say, I fantasised a list of better Christmas musicals the Menier could have picked. Why not bring ‘Urinetown’, ‘Batboy’, ‘Steel Pier’, ‘Sherry!’ or Reefer Madness’ to these shores, rather than something that merely reminds us how embarrassing the seventies was?