Pippin

Wed 14th – Sat 17th October 2015

reviews

Jack McNichol

at 08:50 on 15th Oct 2015

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Pippin is a subversive comedy musical which delivers much more than its premise, a picaresque and metatheatrical adventure story, at first suggests.

Audience members file into the ADC to find Pippin’s cast members strewn around the theatre, on the stage, along the rows, alarming close to your cardboard cup of coffee as they jerk into life at the command of Caroline Sautter, this troupe’s ‘Leading Player’. Make-up, careful movement, and ribbons tied around the wrists of the performers denote loudly their puppet-status. This makes for a lovely visual spectacle in a play low on set and props, and communicates effectively a theoretical framework for the production: their characters are unreal representations, they are performing a formal and predetermined sequence of actions. However, on top of this ‘actors are puppets’ statement, we have numerous other moves to generate a ‘theatre of alienation’. The narrator interrupts proceedings to give direction, provides vocalised stage directions; characters start and stop songs as they please, communicating with the lighting technician and the musicians. As the performance progressed, I began to think that all of these “clever” interventions were getting in the way of the play *too effectively*. I understood what they were doing, but the execution seemed forced. Someone pretending to be telling an actor to put their costume on properly isn't the same as someone actually doing it, and it doesn't look or sound the same.

Unfortunately there really were quite a few intrusive microphone-noises; squeaks and rumbles which distracted from the dialogue and lyrics. In addition, I felt that the balance between instruments and voices was not always as it should be, causing some lively musical passages to lack the energy and impact they deserved. And so, a firm and respectful 3 star opinion of the production settled in my mind. Well-acted and sung, nicely designed, but not really gripping or urgent in any way. But this opinion melted away as the musical drew closer towards its conclusion.

In a wonderful and well communicated shift, the play turns viciously on its protagonist. The puppets no longer seem to be slaves of the story, they don’t simply have to enact their essential fictionality. In a radical move they become the puppet-masters. They embody the play and its trajectory, sweeping Pippin along with it, controlling and directing him. And as such, they do become truly sinister, unsettling, uncanny in a way that perhaps only puppets can be. This chorus seems to be the voice in all of our heads. They parrot the roles of the archetypal characters we have happily gobbled up as children – the Machiavellian step-mother, the cruel and powerful king, the good and dutiful wife. These voices suggest to us that we too can live the life of the fairytale hero – achieve a transcendent fulfilment accompanied by song and spectacular light show – a suggestion that turns us away from the reality of life as it is lived, leads us to desperate, even fatal acts.

The production was truly an ensemble piece if there ever was one, and there really was no weak link. Oli MacFarlane was a strong anchor for the production in its central role, with a consistently impressive vocal performance. Yasmin Freeman, as Fastrada, step-mother to Pippin, was funny and rewarding to watch, with delightfully precise movement and facial expression. Lucy Dickson’s turn as Pippin’s grandmother was also completely and joyfully entertaining: such grandma-dancing is a gift to the world of theatre. Yet the comic highlight of the piece was quite clearly the performance of Lily Lindon, sporadically delivering hilarious little moments of physical comedy, as well as quiet, casual remarks when acting as a chorus member. Her performance culminated in the role of Theo, a cute young boy, for whom she managed to generate huge audience sympathy and endearment, working with barely any dialogue and only a puppet for a prop. This excellent portrayal leant the play’s conclusion and final message much greater power and emotional impact that it might otherwise have reached.

This musical was much more interesting, powerful and engaging than I at first gave it credit for. It has a profundity beneath its chirpy songs and quirky costumes which the cast cleverly and gradually bring to the surface, and a message which resonates beyond the walls of the theatre it constantly invokes.

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Lottie Limb

at 13:13 on 15th Oct 2015

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Unpacked from the Edinburgh Fringe onto the ADC stage, there is nothing peripheral and everything essential about Pippin. Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society present the tale of a young prince on the pursuit of meaning and extraordinariness; a story that presses ever onwards in its object-driven end, whilst animating all it touches along the way.

Pippin is spell-binding: a visual and auditory treat. You feel yourself unwinding from the moment the musical box tableau (players scattered around the auditorium) winds up. Caroline Sautter is outstanding as the conductor of this, the Player who draws us into the whirligig storybook world of Pippin’s life and in whose hands – even as we come to hold her at arm’s length – we never cease to feel comfortable: no easy contortion. Oli MacFarlane seizes the stage as the scholar-prince, his performance skilfully establishing himself as a manikin man amongst the puppets, and the power-play between the two leads is electrifying throughout. But strong performances from all of the cast orientate us amongst the show’s dizzying plot developments, steady us at its more vertiginous moments, and make its fluid emotionality as convincing as it is fun. The boots of Pippin’s King-father are filled by Megan Henson, reminiscent of a (cheek-scarred-not-rouged) capricious Queenie from Blackadder. And Lucy Dickson is exuberance embodied as grandmother Berthe. Her performance of “No Time At All” was not so much a destruction of the fourth-wall as a warm caressing of the audience. “Look at this day – look at it!” encapsulating all the positivity of the play. I loved how, holding forth in her domestic court, the ribbons that steer Pippin and pull proceedings along were thinned to kitting threads under her worldly-wise eyes.

Which brings us to an aspect of the show that should have been foregrounded long ago: its staging! The utterly magical materiality of metallic and papery props, and those ribbons – so economically suggestive, flowing or ripping like a broken Jacob’s ladder across the stage. Lighting, no less, serves to set the tone throughout, with an intuition that breaks the bounds of stagecraft. Both combine in an ending that evokes the combustibility of a ribbon and paper existence. Enacting existentialism’s ‘pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench’, Pippin sees colour, light, and point.

Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society’s late show offering is a gift. An old fashioned sweet crinkled in Christmas paper, the be-ribboned velveteen rabbit of the bunch. Take it. For in fact: Pippin is no indulgent viewing, but a healthy dose of magic and optimism to warm the cockles of your heart these chilly October nights.

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