In the dark months where we had no theatres open at all, people got creative to find ways to stage performances. One of them was to create a new theatre in a space which was used as a beer garden in a club usually. Talk about creative! And so the Garden Theatre outside the Eagle club in Vauxhall was born. Following rave reviews and a sold out run of the theatres debut production Fanny & Stella, a production of Pippin is currently playing to sell out crowds. But was it any good?
If you are unfamiliar with Pippin, it was first performed in 1972 and has music and lyrics from Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz and original choreography from the legendary Bob Fosse. It tells the story of a Prince on a search for meaning and significance in his life. For this production, the show has been revised by Steven Dexter to change the narrative to be told by a group of hippie travellers and features a reduced cast of six, playing multiple roles.
The Garden Theatre is an intimate setting with just 50 people watching each performance (more on that later) - the cast get up close and personal (within reason in current times obviously) so it feels at times like they are singing solely to you, and they probably are. I was victim to a lot of intense eyeballing throughout the show - but I'd be lying if I said that wasn't something I loved in live theatre.
A big standout of this production was the choreography from Nick Winston, making the use of a limited space but using every nook and cranny possible to maximise the effectiveness to jawdropping standard.
Ryan Anderson led the cast as the titular Pippin, treading the fine line between confidence and cockiness but with an emotional heart. He showed off his incredible range with the iconic number 'Corner Of The Sky', hitting the stunning climax with ease and showing a great deal of charisma which carried through the venue.
With a reduced cast, the six performers needed to bring their A game and versatility when stepping in to different roles. They did it with no problems at all. Tanisha-Mae Brown went from being a peasant who gets hanged multiple times to playing Pippin's love interest, Catherine. Harry Francis impressed with his comedy and moves while playing Pippin's brother Lewis and Catherine's son, Theo. Tsemaye Bob-Egbe shines as the leading player while Dan Krikler has the biggest challenge, going from Pippin's father - the King, to playing Theo's pet duck - both, alas, meet a tragic end.
The standout performance came from Strictly star Joanne Clifton, who brought her fantastic moves, impressive voice and brilliant comedy chops to the roles of Pippin's mother and grandmother, Berthe. Her leading the audience to a singalong of 'No time at all', commenting on their varying degrees of talent and genuinely being hilarious was the highlight of the entire show.
References to Covid were dropped in to the show, from Berthe saying she can't tell if people are singing under their masks or telling another character to not come too close. In light of what is happening this year, it would be remiss of me to not mention safety measures a venue has to safeguard the audience, and that is where the Garden Theatre, sadly, loses points.
Most of the safety measures in place at the theatre were spot on. From bag checks (not as contactless as they should have been) to temperature checks to being escorted to a seat in the bar and having everything explained to you by the friendliest staff member you will ever meet, it was all going fine... until we moved into the theatre. My party of two was escorted to two seats in a corner of the venue. We were briefed multiple times about staying in our bubbles and not mixing with others. So imagine my surprise when another party of two sat right next to us with no social distancing whatsoever. Looking around the venue, this seemed like a common theme as it was hard to tell where bubbles of 2, 3 and 4 ended and the next bubble began. The issue seems to be allowing people to book in whatever party sizes they wish and then trying to fit everybody in. Where this was only a capacity of 50, really to adhere to social distancing measures it needed to be 30-35 people in there. While I am appreciative of the efforts everybody went to to create this new venue and have performances go ahead, audience safety is paramount and I felt uncomfortable about the close proximity of other people compared to the other theatres I have visited since theatres began opening.
The last thing I want to do is deter anybody from visiting this theatre or any other theatre, but safety needs to be a huge focus and I wouldn't be honest if I didn't mention it in this review. Where every other safety measure was done to a high standard, the Garden theatre really need to rethink their seating arrangements if they want to allow 50 people to watch each performance.
I admire the creativity in bringing this venue into existence where it was previously a beer garden. However, the sound of traffic outside was far too distracting and often drowned out the cast members. While it did lead to an amusing moment where Joanne Clifton told a cast member to "Hold on" while she waited for a police siren to pass, it was extremely difficult to hear the cast members at times throughout the show.
This production of Pippin did the best it could given the current limitations, utilising the talents of its small but mighty cast perfectly and bringing life to the story and fantastic songs such as 'Magic To Do' with excellent vocals and choreography. Unfortunately the flaws of the venue with the sound and safety measures were too distracting and took away from the brilliance of the production. While there may still be magic to do, the Garden Theatre also have a lot of work to do.
Pippin runs at the Garden Theatre in Vauxhall until Sunday 11th October. Tickets are available here