There are a few things you just can’t say about musical theatre without inviting the opprobrium of a fan base – ‘Elaine Paige isn’t a very versatile singer’ might be one, ‘not many Prince Fiyero’s are convincingly heterosexual’ another, but ‘Pippin is not a very good musical’ would definitely be poking a freshly-sharpened stick into the cage of its legion of defensive fans.

Measured by the empirical standards of Book Music and Lyrics, counting the ratio of charm songs to anthems and so on, Pippin fails almost every test: the book is a mediaeval nonsense in the reign of Charlemagne (742-814). Contemporary theatregoers struggle with history as recent as Les Misérables or Hamilton so rummaging this far back into Europe’s murky past of Catholic crusades serves up a sort of cod Candide. Unfortunately, in this production’s case, without the disembowelling.

Fans praise the music: there are some nice songs, some of them a bit new-agey and reflective like Godspell or Hair – but even the folkiest item in Stephen Schwartz’s score is here jacked up to ‘Defying Gravity’ pitch, and crucified by the over-amplification and inherent distortions of Southwark’s notorious sound system. There are probably witty lyrics, but apart from those passed round for a community singsong of Grandma Berthe’s ‘No Time At All’, they were mostly swallowed by the reverb.

What shafts this production royally in its fishnet and suspender-clad buttocks is its slavishly dated adherence to Fosse style costume and choreography as though no other interpretation could flatter the music or illuminate the story.  Yes, he’s an original co-creator, but if you want to pay homage to the celebrated one-trick pony, do Chicago or Cabaret, at least they have hummable tunes and a plot you can follow without programme notes.

Pippin was originally conceived as a student musical, and here it looks like one.

Jonathan Carlton is cute and charming as Pippin with a strong high tenor. Rhidian Marc’s Welsh lilt sort of suits Emperor ‘Charles’ but the barrel-scraping wit of the production is to pair him with a wife whose harsh Scots accent seems to derive from Two Doors Down.

As the Leading Player Genevieve Nicole is trapped like a Spider Woman in her Fosse web, obliged constantly to sashay downstage waving her wrists behind her back and belt all her vocals, which is a waste of her considerable talent because covering Adelaide in Guys and Dolls at the Savoy she outshone Sophie Thompson.

It’s supposed to be a classic ‘coming of age’ story.  Is there a genre called Condemned Bildungsroman?

until 24 March