Joan Davies is surprised at her disappointment in this magical musical


Hope Mill Theatre’s short life has brought a welcome new vibe to the Manchester theatre landscape; with a string of sell-out shows and a multitude of awards, it’s already garnered huge warmth and respect from audiences and theatre professionals alike.  

Its founders, Joseph Houston and William Whelton, opened the cultural gem in Hope Mill less than two years ago, based on a belief that there was a gap in the market for small-scale high quality musical theatre - and it seems they were right. Three of their in-house musicals: Parade, Yank and Hair – none of which had a high profile previously -gained five-star reviews both locally and nationally, with the latter two transferring to London. It’s an amazing level of success, a true ‘rags-to-riches’ story that belied all expectations. 

Hopes are high, then, for Pippin: a little-known musical, loved by many of the few who’ve previously seen it.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, best known for Godspell and Wicked, based on the book by Roger O. Hirson, the show loosely tells the tale of Pippin; supposed son of Charlemagne, King and Emperor of a large part of Europe. 

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Jonathan Carlton (right) as protagonist Pippin

Pippin is a young, well-educated man of potential inherited fortune and power who longs for something more fulfilling and meaningful in his life. He tries a quickly abandoned land-reforming approach to government, then lots of sex and various other supposed enjoyments of life - only finding his true self through the love of a woman and her child (fortunately a fairly wealthy woman, given how carelessly he’s burned much of his vast flotilla).

Jonathan Carlton plays Pippin with some assurity, a natural demeanour and a pleasing voice. There’s a modern feel to it and a genuine expression of the emptiness we might imagine inhabits a bright young man who’s had his path to adulthood signed and sealed through a combination of privilege and ability. He’s taken under the wing of a nameless Vaudeville troupe Leading Player, who guides him with mix of tenderness and a hint of mischievous dominatrix; an entertaining and gutsy performance from Genevieve Nicole, who has the lungs and the legs to carry the part. 

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Genevieve Nicole is a highlight of the show

The show starts strongly. The music, 45 years old, reflects the seventies and adds vaudeville styling, creating openings for Bob Fosse choreographic hits. A black and white design concept avoids visual overload in the small space, and the band is sharp too.  

I doubt we’re meant to take the show literally. The players take on roles of major characters in Pippin’s life, often representing the forces he (as everyone) needs to battle, while searching for those who will play a more supportive role. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t take me in this direction, and it’s often hard to view Pippin as more than young man of considerable advantage, who needs more preparation before taking major decisions.

I’m in a minority, I know.                

I really wanted to like this show. I tend to think that rarely performed shows have that status for a reason; they’re difficult, they don’t fit the times, or they’re just not that good. Pippin, with its tale of a young man lacking direction in the world, certainly fits the times. It might have won a Tony, but that can happen in quiet years to weaker shows.

I still love Hope Mill Theatre; the warmth of the venue and the strength of the product will certainly bring me back. Roll on Little Women.

Pippin is at Hope Mill Theatre until 23 September