Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1
Opened 7 December, 2011

If, like me, you regularly misinterpret the phrase “on Wii” in video game commercials as “ennui”, you may not be hugely grabbed by the concept behind this revival of Stephen Schwartz’s musical (unseen in London since its 1973 UK première). What was originally a troupe of slightly sinister travelling players is now a bunch of silver-Lycra’d RPG avatars, though still marshalled by a “Leading Player”. When he introduces characters as “Player 1” and so on, this update makes a previously Brechtian touch now suggest an online multi-player game. As for the new principal player (Harry Hepple), we have walked past him on our way into the auditorium, sitting at his computer in his ill-lit room. He takes the role of Charlemagne’s elder son Pippin (the historical Pepin the Hunchback) for a series of meditations on love, power and above all living your own life.
In fact, this is what pretty much every number homes in on. We might be skimming through 9th-century history, or discovering the growing joys of simple domesticity, or deep in the players’ attempts to fit the new Pippin into their desired mould, but the lyrical rhetoric is always about finding your own identity, whether grand or modest. It is the one constant as narrative, intellectual and emotional registers career all over the place.
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 ranging from simple dots and lines to the most complex and detailed animations and multiple onscreen webcam/chat windows. It is an altogether magnificent design, but it keeps crashing as a concept. If this is a video game, what are those players doing in a battle scene/number in bowler hats and canes? Answer: 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, but this sequence is out of kilter even by these standards. 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.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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