It takes a lot to get me out of London to see shows elsewhere, but such was the fuss being made in certain quarters about the Hope Mill Theatre’s production of Pippin The Musical that I trekked up to Manchester to see what the fuss was all about. The theatre is still fairly new to the Manchester scene, having formally opened its doors at the start of 2016, but has already secured London transfers of their productions: Yank! completed a run at the Charing Cross Theatre earlier this year, and later this year, Hope Mill’s production of Hair comes to The Vaults in Waterloo – an advert for it adorns the back page of the programme for Pippin.
But the taxi driver at the hackney carriage rank at Manchester Piccadilly station hadn’t even heard of the Hope Mill Theatre, and as I told him I had contact details for them, he dropped me off halfway up Pollard Street and left me to figure the rest out for myself. As it turns out, I could have managed to walk it all the way, as I did on the way back to Piccadilly. I don’t know why I’m such a stickler for this sort of superfluous detail – a venue is where it is – but I note with interest the nearest tram stop is New Islington, but the theatre considers itself to be in Ancoats. A look at the ward maps on the Manchester City Council website reveals it to be in Bradford Ward. I suppose one can only default to saying that the Hope Mill Theatre is in Manchester.
I got lucky with the crowds having plumped for a Saturday matinee – the 55,000 seater Etihad Stadium is within walking distance of the Hope Mill, but Manchester City Football Club were playing ‘away’ down in Watford (no, I didn’t have the foresight to look this up beforehand). The train back to London was particularly quiet. No wonder the train crew were almost beyond happy, providing customer service with a smile – no boorish and loutish football fans shouting and swearing abuse at them and one another.
I don’t know if it’s typical for the audience to be sat on three sides at the Hope Mill, but the catwalk-style stage worked remarkably well for this production. Perhaps only from the most extreme ends of the side blocks is the view somewhat restricted. Pippin pre-dates Avenue Q by almost a generation, but the quest to find meaning and purpose for one’s life appears in both, as do the conclusions that such a purpose is not going to be narrowly defined – because, you know, c’est la vie – and that there is much to be treasured in the everyday and so-called ‘ordinary’.
Jonathan Carlton in the title role is simply amazing. The production makes brilliant use of the actors’ natural accents, and to this end Rhidian Marc’s Charles is a bombastic Welsh-accented patriarch, the likes of which the 1972 original Broadway production, or indeed the 2013 Broadway revival, could never have envisaged. And it works. Carlton noticeably sings in American but speaks in British, presumably because he is directed to do the former, and the latter just comes naturally. (If you want to hear what a British accent sounds like in a song, have a listen to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’.) When Carlton sings – oh my! – the vocal range is impressive, and it’s the sort of voice I could listen to over and over again. Not that I’m calling for a cast recording of this production or anything…
If the accents are, collectively speaking, from different places, the storyline appears to be all over the place too. Another audience member’s exit poll verdict was that he didn’t know what it was about before he went into the theatre, and having seen it, he still doesn’t know what it’s about. It does seem to be difficult to place historically or geographically. But it’s also clever. Catherine (Tessa Kadler) deviates from the script, winding up the Leading Player (Genevieve Nicole). Except nobody is actually deviating from the script, because it’s scripted that there would be a deviation from the script. This can only happen if there’s another script within the script.
In some ways, this is a show about a show. A performance troupe has amongst its members three people simply listed in the Pippin programme as ‘Player’, Ellie Seaton, Andrew Halliday and Olivia Faulkner. A fourth ‘Player’, Scott Hayward, doubles up as Theo, Catherine’s son. Characters are rarely entirely off-stage, generally seated at the rear of the stage when inactive. Whether that was strictly necessary is debatable. The musical numbers are of varying pace and style – always a good thing, and ‘Corner of the Sky’, a perennial favourite in musical theatre concerts and, apparently, stage musical auditions, is a highly inspirational ‘I wish’ song. The sound levels are comfortable and the balance between the band (nine-strong and led by Zach Flis) and the cast was only occasionally too slanted in favour of the musicians.
A note in the programme mentions the recreation of the ‘Manson Trio’, and if I’m brutally honest, I’ve seen Bob Fosse’s famed choreography done better elsewhere. The staging could be improved on, too, though I hasten to add that the action moves very slickly in this production, and might be slowed down somewhat if the scene changes were more elaborate. The lighting (Aaron J. Dootson) is excellent, however, making it easy to focus on the most relevant part of the action at any given point but allowing the audience to observe several other things simultaneously.
It’s all performed with verve and conviction, though, and that’s infinitely more important than an expensive set. And people were humming tunes from the show as they trekked back to Manchester city centre, which is always a good indication of their enjoyment. I hope this production follows in the footsteps of Yank! and Hair (the Hope Mill seems to have a preference for one-word musicals) and finds its way down to London in due course. In the meantime, the trip up from the Big Smoke was certainly worth it.
4 ½ stars
Photo credit: Anthony Robling