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Review Round-up: Hepple, Rawle & Ruffelle in Menier Pippin

By • West End
Mitch Sebastian's Menier Chocolate Factory revival of Stephen Schwartz and Roger O Hirson's Pippin opened last week (7 December, previews from 22 November 2011) starring Harry Hepple in the title role alongside Ian Kelsey, Matt Rawle, Carly Bawden and Frances Ruffelle.

With design and projection by Olivier Award-winning Sunday in the Park with George creative Timothy Bird and Fosse's original Broadway choreography recreated by his assistant Chet Walker, the production continues until 25 February 2012.

The role of Berthe, currently played by Louise Gold, will be portrayed by a rotation of actresses, with Caroline Quentin taking over from 10 January 2012.

Critics seemed unsure of the cyber set which Bird has created to follow his much-lauded Sunday in the Park with George and the musical's now 40-year-old content and message, but there is praise across the board for the show's solid principal cast.

Andrew Girvan

"Pippin… is again dragged forwards into the modern computer age with Mitch Sebastian's 'high concept' Menier Chocolate Factory revival… Timothy Bird's elaborately constructed computer game … In the title role Hepple sings Pippin with a pure, lyrical and fluid voice. His "Corner of the Sky", is the piece's redeeming feature … Matt Rawle as the Leading Player and malevolent master of ceremonies never quite possesses the required charisma. Frances Ruffelle is strong as meddling Essex step-mother Fastrada … Carly Bawden reinvigorates the second act … But overall the virtual environment seems to mute the underlying production's dramatic impact … The aesthetic invokes the 1982 feature film Tron … There is no denying that it isn't fiendishly clever … The strong leading performance from Hepple feels like it has had to cut through techno distractions … Maybe the greatest problem here is that there is no turmoil to be had, when we have been convinced so successfully that it's really all just a game."

Kate Kellaway

"Mitch Sebastian's dauntless but misconceived production aims at being cutting edge but feels dated … The plot does not thicken. If anything, it loses weight … But one must at least nod at what Sebastian and designer Timothy Bird have attempted: the transformation of the theatre into a computer game … In theory, it is an ingenious idea, too, that Pippin should simultaneously be a prince seeking his destiny and a modern boy in a virtual world dreaming of his … There are some feisty performances… Harry Hepple with fresh voice and honest manner … David Page, is a fabulous dancer (on stage too briefly). Frances Ruffelle razzle-dazzles as Pippin's saucy stepmother. Louise Gold, as his granny, does her ironic best with a dubious song… while Carly Bawden's lissome Catherine does all she can with youth."

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard

"The setting is deliberately disjunctive, out of time and place, as the enigmatic, controlling figure of the Leading Player (Matt Rawle) announces that he and his troupe are going to tell us the story of Pippin's search for meaning in his life. It's a peculiar thesis … Timothy Bird (rightly feted for his work on Sunday in the Park with George at this venue)… has ingeniously re-imagined the whole set-up as a video game … There are all manner of sophisticated projected graphics… and an effervescent unitard-clad ensemble, for whom some of Fosse's original choreography has been recreated … Bird's idea is, rightly, pushed to the hilt by director Mitch Sebastian but the problem at the show's heart remains. If we don't care about the existential crisis plaguing Pippin in the musical that bears his name, what hope is there for any real emotional engagement? … Hepple… sings nicely enough … With such awkward raw material, maybe 'top level' for effort is the best Pippin is likely to get."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"Oh dear, oh dear… last year the Menier came a cropper with Paradise Found… now it has revived Pippin (1972), with an unbearably twee book by Roger O Hirson and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz … This is one of those shows, like the tooth-rottingly sentimental The Fantasticks, in which British and American tastes fail to coincide … It’s all excruciatingly fey … Director Mitch Sebastian has tried to make its seem 'edgy' and 'relevant' by presenting it all as a video game … Timothy Bird’s design is all lasers, CGI, and footage of hot babes in internet chatrooms … Bob Fosse’s choreography has apparently been recreated by his assistant on the original production … Matt Rawle seriously overdoes the cheesy grins… and Harry Hepple proves curiously charmless … There are strong turns from Frances Ruffelle as the hero’s vulgar stepmother … Give this insufferable show the widest possible berth."

Paul Taylor

"The piece has a dodgy Leading Player and is so wilfully anachronistic that it makes the Haymarket's Lion in Winter look like the last word in furrowed fidelity to the medieval mindset … Pippin (excellent Harry Hepple) is re-imagined as a geek who, shades of Tron, gets sucked into a quest-type computer-game. The bare walls of the theatre teem with restlessly inventive, mind-blowing graphics (designed by Timothy Bird) … One moment it's Clockwork Orange­-meets-Cabaret via Duran Duran; the next it's tweeting on Twitter … It makes the warped agenda of Matt Rawles's psychopathically smiling narrator seems all the more mountingly Mephistophelean … Throughout, Harry Hepple sings well and is a sympathetic presence, recognisably of the same species as the audience. The disadvantage is that the emphasis on 'levels' in a computer game highlights how the narrative progression in this show is too often arbitrary and lacking in tension. I admire the production's flair and chutzpah. I'm not sure that I could sit through it again."

Patrick Marmion
Daily Mail

"I’ve never seen anything like this nerdish, video game revival of the Sixties musical that time forgot … Harry Hepple finds himself swallowed up by a video game in which his father turns out to be the warmongering tyrant Charlemagne the Great in 800AD … The show gets its sweaty little fists on lots of issues like politics, war, religion and of course sex … The effect is like the musical Hair colliding with an Eighties episode of Dr Who … The most striking innovation in Mitch Sebastian’s production, though, is Timothy Bird’s sci-fi design … With Hepple from TV’s sci-fi drama Misfits making an excellent choice of hero … The whole thing has a big tacky grin painted on it… in the shape of MC Matt RawlePippin will not be everybody’s cup of Red Bull, but you can’t deny its potency as a synthetic, carbonated caffeine fix."

Michael Billington

"Towards the end of this revival of a long-forgotten 1972 musical, it suddenly hit me what I was watching: Broadway's answer to Peer Gynt … This revival takes a high-concept approach to the music and lyrics of Stephen Schwartz and the book by Roger O Hirson … For all the show's supposed daring, I was struck by its caution: it turns out to be anti-intellectual in its cursory dismissal of art and religion … Even if I find the show absurd, I warmed to the presentation … Matt Rawle makes a beguiling narrator, Harry Hepple rescues the Everyman hero from insipidity, and pleasant to watch are Frances Ruffelle as a sultry schemer, Louise Gold as a cavorting granny and Carly Bawden as the loving widow. This version is a marked improvement on the 1972 production. What I can't take seriously is Pippin's pretence to be a comment on life."

Ian Shuttleworth
Financial Times

"What was originally a troupe of slightly sinister travelling players is now a bunch of silver-Lycra’d digital avatars … As for the new principal player (Harry Hepple) … He takes the role of Charlemagne’s elder son Pippin… for a series of meditations on love, power and above all living your own life … Timothy Bird, who co-designed the Menier’s 2005 revival of Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park with George, provides another breathtaking set of computer graphics … but it keeps crashing as a concept … The 'Manson trio' was one of Bob Fosse’s most famous routines, here re-created under the choreographic direction of his former associate Chet Walker. Mitch Sebastian’s production has no consistent tone … A clutch of musical stalwarts including Louise Gold, Frances Ruffelle and Matt Rawle as the Leading Player all deliver their individual roles well, but the aggregate is staggeringly incoherent. This is less like online poker than a computerised version of 52-card pick-up."

Libby Purves
The Times

"Even with the catchy pop anthems of Stephen Schwartz (remember 'Corner of the Sky'?) and the knock-kneed provocative insolence of Bob Fosse choreography recreated by Chet Walker … Pippin still tells the story of the son of Emperor Charlemagne who rebelled against his tyrant father … Now the cod-medieval tale is set in a modern video game with screens and dissolving projections … A mailed Charlemagne (Ian Kelsey) and slinky Lycra warriors are not too incongruous in Timothy Bird’s alarming video set. Matt Rawle is a fine satanic compere; Pippin (Harry Hepple) a Candide stumbling disillusioned through 'levels' … At one point he seizes power, abolishes taxes, and finds he can’t afford an army to fight off Visigoths, so gives up. His boy-band looks and voice suit the character’s naivety: and I liked the comedy interlude with his raunchy Grandma (Louise Gold) … Various surprise names replace her during the run. I nearly volunteered."

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