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Pipe Dream by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein

Pipe DreamWith the perpetually revived Sound of Music playing to packed houses in Regents Park, it would be easy to miss the appearance of one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s least known musicals down in Southwark. It would also be a mistake; not only is this Pipe Dream’s first London production, it is also a resoundingly good one, full of vigour, poignancy and resourcefulness.

If you were making a musical about a musical, you would need to look no further than this for your subject matter, for Pipe Dream was that rare experience for the genre’s most successful partnership, a flop. What’s more, it’s largely set in a flophouse, so there’s the first gag.

Briefly – and this is an almost criminal compression – it was to have been another Broadway triumph from the team that had already brought you Oklahoma and South Pacific. Their skills were to be augmented by those of the American Depression’s great chronicler, John Steinbeck. He even wrote a short novel, Sweet Thursday, a sequel to his Cannery Row, as a narrative basis for the project.

What went wrong? Not much point in post mortems at this moment of revival, beyond noting that it was up against the rampant new My Fair Lady and also that R and H were perhaps too coy to allow a full-blooded portrayal of one of the story’s central characters, the prostitutes’ madame Fauna. With such a state of affairs, happily remedied at the Union by Virge Gilchrist and her director Sacha Regan, it was bound to remain at, well, half-cock.

As Southwark is to Regents Park, so Pipe Dream is to Sound of Music –  a less prosperous urban cousin. The Von Trapps had their challenges all right, but none quite so grinding as those facing the down-and-outs, struggling girls and inhibited lovers of this earlier work. Completed in 1955, just four years before Sound of Music its landscape is the valley of personal as much as public depression, with, naturally, the shimmering uplands of hope conjured into view.

Love hovers like a difficult angel over the heads of the brilliant but insecure marine biologist Doc and the diffident escort Suzy, who goes to live in a disused boiler; hence the title’s pipe, through which she enters her quarters. Through the concurrent plotline, concerning a raffle and the ownership of the flophouse, luck does the decent thing and sides with the lovers.

All right, so there probably isn’t an Edelweiss or a Climb Every Mountain in the score, but there are some terrific marriages of melody and lyrical wit, and if R and H found themselves revived for two hours in the audience of The Union, they would surely be grateful to Regan’s seventeen-strong cast for the exuberant intimacy of their singing.

In a crowded field of accomplished multi-taskers, Kieran Brown’s (Doc) tone has a kind of informal glory which sets him professionally apart from the downers and the dossers. Charlotte Scott as Suzy, the object of his fascination, poises herself classily and comically between hard-to-get and pushover. One of the production’s choreographical highlights is Brown’s singing of The Man I Used To Be against a duetting shadow of his former self. Another is the routine for A Lopsided Bus, which likens the condition of life on Cannery Row to a hair-raising but joyful ride on a hopelessly skewed vehicle. Regan may or may not have intended this to be a poor-theatre tribute to the delights of enforced improvisation, but it is tempting to see it as such.

If size matters in musicals, then the big songs of Sound of Music help to explain the phenomenon of that show. Pipe Dream seems to be playing a different, more nuanced game. Perhaps this was a consequence of its bare-boned social setting, more boilerhouse than kitchen sink, and perhaps this in turn disappointed Broadway audiences expecting a particular choral swagger from the Rodgers and Hammerstein brand. There are moments when, by comparison, Pipe Dream comes across almost as a chamber piece.Was it just ahead of its time and wrongly condemned to half a century in the unvisited suburbs of the musical metropolis? That’s the question the Union Theatre has intriguingly asked.

Review by Alan Franks @alanfranks

Production information
Cast and Creatives:
Kieran Brown as Doc, Charlotte Scott as Suzy, Virge Gilhrist as Fauna
Also featuring, David Haydn, Nick Martland, Matt Parsons, Christopher Connor, Shane Landers, Mitchell Jarvis, John Hicks, Joshua Lovell, Georgie Burdett, Catherine Sagar, Michaela Cartmell, Rebecca Fennelly, Clare Duffy and Alexandra Lloyd-Hamilton.

Sasha Regan Director, Lizzi Gee Choreographer, Christopher Peake Musical Director, Earl Rose Hughes Designer,
Tim Deiling Lighting Designer.

Show Listing
Wednesday 31st July – Saturday 31st August 2013
Tuesday – Saturday at 7.30pm; plus Saturday/Sunday matinees at 2.30pm
For more information visit www.uniontheatre.biz


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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