There’s a fine tradition at the Royal and Derngate of producing top quality children’s Christmas plays in the old Royal theatre, whilst the more glitzy pantomimes are running in the Derngate auditorium. Over the years they’ve produced some absolute crackers – I think Alice in Wonderland was my favourite – although last year’s effort, The Worst Witch, left Mrs Chrisparkle and me totally cold and we didn’t go back for the second Act – ironically, it went on to have a successful tour and even a West End run. What do I know?
I had, of course, heard about the character of Pippi Longstocking, but I’ve never read the books (because I’ve never been a nine-year-old girl), nor seen the TV or film adaptations. She’s the creation of Astrid Lindgren, whose tall stories about the mighty Pippi entertained her daughter during the Second World War and were an instant hit when published in 1945. And it’s not hard to see why. After the turmoil and grief of the war, the cheeky but selfless girl who finds her own way in life but is essentially kind and friendly would make a welcome change from the daily misery everyone had experienced for the previous six years. Pippi is strong and fearless, blindly optimistic, doesn’t care to follow unnecessary rules or restrictive practices, but will do anything to help anyone in trouble, and just wants to spread joy. She’d be perfect as the new leader of the Labour Party.
Mike Akers has taken Lindgren’s characters and setting, and mixed up a few of the stories to create this charming musical play that starts with Pippi being shipwrecked, her father being blown overboard, and then her moving into the Villa Villakula where her next door neighbours are the straight-laced Mayor and Mrs Settegren and their dutiful but repressed children Tommy and Annika. The three children become friends, which is where the trouble starts. Pippi causes mayhem at school, at a coffee morning, and, worst of all at Mayor Settegren’s annual fete (worse than death) that he’s been planning meticulously for months. The authorities insist that Pippi be taken away to a recognised children’s home where she will be properly brought up. But do you think Pippi will take that lying down? Me neither.
I love small productions that are modestly staged with more emphasis on the audience’s imagination than on lavish but obvious props and scenery. Katie Sykes’ design includes a circular platform raised to create a space for the musicians to sit inside the “O”, a big wooden triangle that represents Little Town’s one three-storey skyscraper, and a big set of ladders (which can represent anything from hills, hidden lookouts, a ship’s topmast, a tree, or even a big set of ladders). When Act Two opens to the sight of Pippi and her friends relaxing on a South Sea island, with lobsters, gulls and a hilarious seahorse for company, it’s our imagination that fills in all those gaps. In reality, we discover that they’ve encamped at the bottom of the garden, and in fact our imagination has played a trick on us. Very nicely done.
One of the strengths of this production is its very enjoyable music, played with versatility and pizazz by the members of the company as they blend from character to character. Stu Barker’s songs all capture the spirit of adventure and optimism, and you can see that the cast have enormous fun performing them. The music integrates beautifully into the text and, as in any good musical, each song drives the story along so that you get a better understanding of the characters and plot development, and we don’t come out of a song in the same place that we went in.
Leading the cast as Pippi is Emily-Mae who creates a giant impression on the audience with her effervescent sense of fun, innocent determination and tremendous song-and-dance skills. Those high kicks are pretty amazing! Alex Parry’s Settegren is a hilarious portrayal of a pompous killjoy whose response to things going wrong is to go into a great big sulk. Matthew Churcher and Philippa Hogg give great support as the posh kids Tommy and Annika, who are bored with being good children and are desperate to have adventures (providing they’re not too extreme). Scott Brooks is excellent in all his roles, but I particularly enjoyed his partnership with Hanora Kamen as the two inept police officers. Ms Kamen is also an excellent bossy teacher who’s not afraid to tell off any kids in the audience – so you’d better behave! But the entire cast work as a great ensemble and give everything they’ve got to make it a fun night.
At our performance, we were surrounded by many, many incredibly excited children who were absolutely bowled over by the show; their energy fed back to the cast who, in turn, rose to the challenge and fed excitement back to the kids. A real two-way experience! When Pippi leaves Northampton on New Year’s Eve, I see this isn’t the end of her adventures as she’s coming to the Theatre Royal York for a summer show in 2020. Charming, funny, beautifully performed, a truly feelgood show that it would be impossible not to like. Hip hip, Pippi!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan