Harry Hepple and Carly Bawden
in Pippin
(© Tristram Kenton)
Harry Hepple and Carly Bawden
in Pippin
(© Tristram Kenton)
Mitch Sebastian's production of Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's problematic 1972 Broadway musical, Pippin, now at the Menier Chocolate Factory, is rather ham-strung by its own high concept as a role-player video game in which the action has been broken down into a series of "levels." Moreover, despite the show's 21st -century gimmick, there's something decidedly retro about the enterprise.

The audience enters the performance space through an area decked out as a bedroom -- with its walls plastered with posters of Tron and Transformers, in which a young man (Harry Hepple) sits with his eyes fixed to his computer screen. The main auditorium has been transformed into a raw concrete arena onto which lasers flicker and video game imagery is projected.

Soon, Hepple is niftily transported into this virtual world where he takes on the role of Pippin, the son of the Emperor Charlemagne, and must then embark on a quest to find some kind of meaning in life. The master of ceremonies, played by Matt Rawle, is here a menacing, leather-trousered Leading Player who intones things like "Level Two: Glory" whenever Pippin faces another life lesson. Dancers clad in silver Lycra body suits spring through the walls at regular intervals.

It's possible to grasp what spurred Sebastian to rework the show in this way; the underlying message of being true to one's own self and following one's own path chimes with the idea of Pippin as a player in a game, chafing against the rules. But the concept proves increasingly problematic as the production progresses and Sebastian doesn't commit to it as wholly as he might have which makes for moments of incomprehensibility and jarring shifts in tone.

For example, one of Pippin's temptations seemingly takes the form of internet porn, and Bob Fosse's original choreography, here recreated by Chet Walker, also doesn't quite gel with this new aesthetic. Timothy Bird's computer graphics are often striking in a flashy, aggressive sort of way but the production design as a whole only heightens the triteness of the material.

There are some strong individual performances among the cast, notably Hepple, who has an endearing everyman quality. In addition, Louise Gold owns her one scene as Pippin's grandmother (although her attempt to engage the audience in a sing-along of "No Time At All" was only partially successful at the performance I attended). And despite the best efforts of Hepple and Carly Bawden as Catherine, the young widow who falls for Pippin, there's never any sense of jeopardy, emotional or physical, making it difficult to engage in Pippin's plight.