2 December 2011

Pippin at Menier Chocolate Factory

After the disappointment of Les Miserables my attempt to find a decent musical took me to an unknown theatre to see an unknown show.

It is something of a mystery how the Menier Chocolate Factory had managed to escape my attention for so long; not only did I use to work literally around the corner in Southwark Bridge Road but shows there have appealed to me before.

The advance blurb for Pippin suggested something special and unusual, and I like special and unusual.

To clinch the deal was the offer of (slight) reductions during the preview period. The still meant shelling out the best part of £40 which is about twice my usual limit.

The theatre is staged in a glorious Victorian building that, surprisingly, used to be a chocolate factory.

Now it is home to a bustling attractive restaurant, a gallery and a theatre with its own bar.

For some reason the entrance as at the side and the route to it involves a clamber over an uneven and narrow path.

Once inside the path to the theatre winds through the restaurant and then down a short corridor that looks as though it might be leading to the toilets.

The bar area, which also hosts the box office, opens up like a Christmas Aunt's arms. There's plenty of space, reasonable seating and warm spicy cider.

The bell goes shortly before the performance starts and it's an orderly rush to the theatre as, unusually for somewhere this size, the seats are numbered.

The route to the theatre is down another corridor that bends slightly. Along the way the walls are strewn with posters for computer games and the like so you think that you are walking through a student's bedroom.

I was delighted to see included a reproduction of a cover of the Marvel comic Tomb of Dracula. This was drawn by Gene Colan who died earlier this year.

Convincing you that this is a student's room there is a student in one corner doing something with a PC that involves making noise.

The first impression of the theatre is one of confusion. The stage is across one corner, almost triangular, and the seating is defined by rows of foot-wells with the seats the same height as the stage. I had a seat in row B which is, of course, the front row.

The stage was brutally bare with little more than a concrete pillar on it. Computer directed lights drew lines along the edges of the stage and the steps as if to emphasise the strangeness of the shape of the stage.

Then the magic started.

The walls proved to be porous and the players suddenly appeared from all directions. This set the tone for the evening with the performance built on a foundation of intricate, clever and spellbinding theatre technology.

But let's get to the story.

Pippin is the eldest son of heir to the throne of Charlemagne. He is not war-minded like his father and is unsure what direction his life should take. He tries many things, including war, over throwing his father, the priesthood, family life and art before reaching his journey's end.

When Pippin arrives on stage we realise that he was the student that we squeezed past outside. A nice touch.

The music is very musically and there's enough repetition of the main songs for you to remember them afterwards. The only low-point comes when the audience is encouraged to join in singing a chorus when displaying the words does little to encourage participation. This is England and this was too much of a middle-class audience for that to work.

The computer generated effects make several appearances as if to remind you that the direction is the point of the show. One highlight, among several, is when Pippin fences against a shadow figure.

There's quite a bit of dancing and acrobatic movement too and the cast make good use of the small and unusual space. Ladders are climbed and swung from, holes are leaped in to and steps are ascended.

The combination of the story,  the movement, the music, the singing and the set cleverness was captivating, thrilling, amazing and, above all else, entertaining. Pippin is a great show.

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