Pied Piper at Battersea Arts Centre – review

Conrad Murray reimagines the medieval fairytale with a beatbox spin

The cast of Pied Piper, © Ali Wright

If you ever needed to see evidence of the excellent work that Battersea Arts Centre do with the local community, then look no further than this new hip-hop family musical.

Written by BAC’s own Conrad Murray and with an incredibly energetic cast made up of former members of the centre’s own Beatbox Academy, this is a vibrant showcase of raw talent, all of whom have their roots firmly fixed in Battersea. It’s also fantastic to look around the full auditorium to see such a wonderfully diverse and cross-generational audience.

Murray leads the Beatbox Academy and has both written and features in this new updated adaption of the old fairytale of the Pied Piper. It’s a musical, created entirely without instruments, but the small company of seven performers all create such sounds with their beatboxing that it proves to be an entirely moot point.

Hamlin has become some sort of dystopian world – “it’s dark and smelly, a bit like Battersea” – where its children, the Rebel Clefs, are forced to work in the evil Mayor’s pie factory, and where singing and dancing are not allowed. Murray isn’t afraid to be suggestive of bigger issues such as workers’ rights and class distinction, so the workers are generously given a seven-minute lunch break in their working day. It’s enough to lead to revolution – “freedom is power” rouses the chorus of beatboxers and singers.

The familiar fairytale is never far away though with the rats taking over the town. Ben Pacey’s simple designs effectively use multiple tiny red lights to show the rats scattered all over the metropolitan-looking set, along with some imaginatively placed props. To rid Hamlin of rats, Murray’s Piper creates a beatboxing orchestra with the help of a prepped audience (we are taught the basics of beatboxing at the start of the show). When the Mayor refuses to “pay the Piper” it is to the children that the Piper turns his gaze and finally teaches him his ultimate lesson. The Mayor is the real rat of course, and the Rebel Clefs are soon empowered to take control of their own destinies once more.

It’s a high-energy piece that offers just enough morality without it becoming onerous. There are moments that are more abstract than others and I wonder how well younger children will follow every turn of the story, but at the performance I watched there were a lot of happy faces. More importantly, there were some amusing looks of intense concentration as they tried to make the drum-kit noises to join in!

A community chorus made up of the Beatbox Academy are brought onstage to swell the numbers on two occasions and they exemplify the voice of community and education in a performance that hits just the right note of engagement and inclusivity.

As well as Murray, there is brilliant work from David Bonnick Jr as the Mayor, Kate Donnachie as the rebellious Mayor’s daughter Robyn, and Lakeisha Lynch-Stevens as a late-flourishing ‘influencer’ who realises that not everything is about ‘likes’. Alex (‘Apollo’) Hardie is ingeniously gifted with a microphone and making sounds and beats that previously I would have thought impossible.

In his final summation, Murray’s Piper tells us that in the new regime “music, art, dance and performance are all valued” – well that’s a utopia we should all wish for.