Review: Pippi Longstocking (Royal and Derngate)

Astrid Lindgren’s red-haired creation comes to life on the stage this winter

Emily-Mae and the cast of Pippi Longstocking
Emily-Mae and the cast of Pippi Longstocking
© Manuel Harlan

If you weren't brought up on the mischievous, quirky antics of this Swedish children's favourite, then Pippi Longstocking could be just another annoying youngster undermining adult authority and making life relentlessly more fun for those she comes into contact with.

Now I am no aficionado, but even without a fountain of youthful memories to tap into, I can see that our pigtailed orphan heroine is something a bit special. You don't have to be Swedish, you don't have to be a girl, you don't even have to be nine years old to get the message that learning is more than just schoolbooks, and imagination is the most powerful force in the universe. Sorry Star Wars.

Astrid Lindgren's vivacious creation – 75 years-old next year – is as fresh as if she were newly minted in Mike Akers's witty, effervescent adaptation, brought to life for Christmas in Northampton's quaint Royal Theatre. The author's short stories may have given the playwright something of a headache in teasing out a full-length performance, but he manages to find enough narrative thread to sustain two fun-filled hours with ease, and the infectious nature of the story and its protagonist are more than enough to carry the show.

In truth, though, it's more than a play: composer Stu Barker has just as significant a role, with songs woven into the fabric of the performance in a way that makes them much more than entertaining asides. Between them, Akers and Barker have created a show that is fully rounded, has three-dimensional depth and has been carefully crafted with its family audience in mind.

It's jointly directed by Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton, co-founders of The Wardrobe Ensemble, and their innovative approach is as effective as the beautifully designed, stripped-pine Swedish aesthetic (Katie Sykes). The nine performers are always perfectly located on the ingenious set, with a sloping doughnut of wood at its centre, in the middle of which sits the constantly varying personnel of a live band.

With everyone on stage playing instruments – and often several each – the logistics of the piece are a marvel in themselves. That Jones and Middleton achieve these visual effects and soundscape with such seamless precision is something of a masterpiece. The band, in fact, are one of the great highlights of this energetic romp, held together by Luke Potter's versatile guitar-playing and Barker's virtuosic multi-instrumentalism. But they all pitch in, from Matthew Churcher's top-class percussion to Hanora Kamen's delightful toy trumpet-playing monkey.

As if that wasn't enough, Emily-Mae puts in a pitch-perfect performance in the title role, never allowing her Pippi to become irritating or over-brash, and constantly delivering just the right amount of confidence and wonder at the world to make you look at yourself and ask, 'whatever happened to my own childlike curiosity?'