Pippin has a problem. In fact, I call it ‘the Pippin problem’ and it is an actual phrase I swear I have used in the past to describe shows whose structure depends on firmly establishing a status quo, and then subverting it. The danger of such a structure — and the pitfall for any producer of Pippin, including those behind this revival, transferring to London from Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre — is that while the status quo is necessary for the subversion to be interesting and surprising and sensical, the subversion is the play’s actual point. So sometimes, all that set-up feels quite perfunctory. And in Pippin, the set-up is an act and a half long.
There are actually two layers of set-up: a troupe of players is putting on a fable-like musical (the fun, pop-y score is by Stephen Schwartz, the book by Roger O. Hirson) about the life of Pippin, the oldest son of the Emperor Charlemagne, and they have enlisted a brand new actor to play the titular role. Said musical then begins, telling the tale of the out-of-place Prince Pippin, who’s sure he’s destined for greatness, but can’t figure out exactly how he’s meant to achieve it. And then it all falls apart.
The maestro Leading Player guides Pippin through a series of alternate lives he could live: as a soldier, as a hedonist, as a king. These vignettes give the show a cabaret-style feel, as different characters with distinct musical styles are given the chance to take centre stage. Charlemagne (Rhidian Marc) gets a peppy, satirical battle song; Pippin’s stepmother (Mairi Barclay) provides one of the highlights of the show with a swanky-sweet number of self-serving piety in tandem with her dimwitted son (Bradley Judge, who looks and acts like the love child of Aidan Turner’s Poldark and Disney’s Gaston).
The two sides of the play’s subversion cohere particularly elegantly in Tessa Kadler, who makes moving sense of the collision between player and character in the down-to-earth widow Catherine. Director Jonathan O’Boyle emphasizes the episodic structure, which is an effective tactic, clarifying that the lack of smooth linearity isn’t actually a flaw in the musical’s construction.
However, the actors sometimes feel ill-at-ease within these vignettes. Genevieve Nicole’s Leading Player is full of smirking malice, but never quite reaches the levels of omnipotent charm that the role demands (and she isn’t helped by the fact that she, like the rest of the company, is endlessly at war with the over-amplified orchestra). Rather than showcasing the diverse talents of the company, it often seems that O’Boyle and the performers find the musical numbers a bit silly, the scenes better rushed through, peppered with what sometimes feel like inside jokes. This works well enough, as it tends to still be funny. But it keeps the audience at a distance rather than drawing us into the charm and glamour of the players.
And there isn’t much glamour to spare, given the minimal props and intentionally shabby set. The ageing musical hall façade is draped with raggedy sheets when the audience enters, and preshow is underscored with faint dripping and distant industrial noises that suggest an abandoned warehouse. Though there’s a lot of talk of magic, there’s not much of it on display. Which could be fine: lots of musicals can benefit from being a little more stripped down than their original versions.
But maybe there are two Pippin problems. Because Pippin is — must be — an extremely glamorous show about a topic that, today, seems particularly ugly: naked ambition. A longing for glory. A secret, sneaking certainty down in your very deepest heart and soul that you really are better — cleverer, more artistic, more soulful, more special — than those around you. O’Boyle and his company recoil from any embrace of this idea. Jonathan Carlton’s Pippin is multifaceted and very compelling, now wide-eyed and guileless, now impatient and bristling with self-importance. But as the show goes on and this latter side dominates, Carlton trades in his earnestness for an increasingly showy swagger, his ambitions more and more explicitly coded as obviously wrong.
It’s no wonder these ideas are so unappealing today, when we’ve got a reality TV star President of the United States, when the Southwark Playhouse itself has become the locus of a casting controversy about social media celebrity, and when legions of disaffected young men who secretly consider themselves better than everyone around them wreak havoc online and off. Pippin can’t be called an idealist, because he really has no ideals. He’s self-involved, no question, and a bit of a dick. Maybe he does just need to grow up and shut up and make peace with the fact that he’s not actually special.
But surely every artist secretly knows the feeling. Surely most people do: the sense it can’t be asking too much to just want to accomplish something with your life, and fearing that in fact, that’s the biggest, most impossible thing in the world.
There’s a way to get it, though. That’s what the Player promises — or should promise. For one beautiful moment, Carlton’s Pippin looks like he might really choose painful, destructive glory over the show’s dirtiest curse: compromise. But O’Boyle rejects that option, rejects the possibility of empathising with its appeal. Even the design of the final moments turns what the play explicitly states is meant to be empty and ugly — confusing, disappointing, uncertain — into a gentle, beautiful golden glow. All those players’ promises? They’re scary and bad and no one really wants them.
Except we do. And to be too fearful of Pippin’s longings to allow them speak to the audience as deeply and truly as they do to him is to compound the play’s problems. If all the build-up is to matter, the show has to be more than a morality tale. Of course, the flipside of long build is that there’s plenty to enjoy before the ending. But such whole-hearted performances as the company puts out deserve a less tentative approach.
Pippin is at Southwark Playhouse until March 24th. For more details, click here.