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Pippi is a ray of much-needed sunshine at Christmas

Review: Pippi Longstocking at Royal and Derngate, Northampton

Let’s not beat around the Christmas tree – you should go and see Pippi Longstocking at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate as a panacea to the bleak midwinter – my face ached from smiling from curtain-up to final bow (and the show got a rare standing ovation).

Emily-Mae (Pippi) and Mr Nilsson (Hanora Kamen) (photo by Manuel Harlan)

Based on the stories by Swedish storyteller Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking follows the adventures of the eponymous heroine, from the chaotic high seas she sails with her (henceforth missing) pirate king dad, to the rather dull Little Town where everything runs like clockwork and rules must be obeyed.

Rising star Emily-Mae is mesmerisingly perfect as Pippi, who comes to Little Town to stay at her father’s abandoned house Villa Villekulla, accompanied by her monkey Mr Nilsson (played by the extraordinarily talented and scene-stealing Hanora Kamen) and a horse. As the Strongest Girl in the World (did we mention that?), Pippi is independent and imaginative, but keen to join in the more familial routines of her new young friends, neighbours Tommy and Annika, played with wide-eyed innocence by Matthew Churcher and Philippa Hogg.

But the town’s adults, led by the domineering and egotistical Mayor, Mr Settegren (brought to life by the brilliantly expressive Alex Parry) reject the unconventional Pippi and want her gone.

Alex Parry as Mayor Settegren (photo by Manuel Harlan)

Despite her relentless positivity, enthusiasm, independent spirit and bravery, there are subtle moments when you can see Emily-Mae’s Pippi long for the stability and love of a family, and themes of resilience, loss, belonging and prejudice are writ large in this show.

The set and costumes are brilliantly conceived with a distinct nod to Ikea in the staging (made of bare wood with hidden drawers) and some rather lovely Scandinavian-themed clothing in various shades of, er, beige, which contrast so well with Pippi’s wild hair and clashing outfit (the books were famously brightly-coloured as an antidote to the author’s bleak war-time upbringing).

(photo by Manuel Harlan)

But what’s really impressive is the fact that not only are all members of the small ensemble cast playing multiple roles, they also play multiple instruments from a tiny ‘orchestra pit’ slap bang in the middle of the circular raised set. And yet this all melds together so perfectly you almost don’t notice it’s there.

Matthew Churcher (Tommy), Emily-Mae and Philippa Hogg (Annika) (photo by Manuel Harlan)

Directed with innovative aplomb by Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton of the excellent Wardrobe Ensemble (who brought us the superb Education, Education Education and The Last of the Pelican Daughters), Pippi Longstocking takes a much-loved children’s character and brings her skillfully to life with genuine fun and depth. Despite being hideously sleep-deprived after the overnight election the previous day, I was leaning forward in my seat from curtain up to the final bow – and the rest of the audience approved too as shown by the standing ovation on press night.

My companions were three girls aged 9-12, the absolute target audience, who were beside themselves to bump into (sorry, stalk) the cast members afterwards, and who told R&D and Made in Northampton boss James Dacre that they’d give it a straight ten out of ten.

They were particularly impressed by Scott Brooks and Hanora Kamen’s joke-telling police officers and enjoyed it immensely when characters got the audience involved in their capers.

Superfans get to meet Pippi (Emily-Mae)

But you don’t need to have kids in tow to enjoy this exciting and engaging piece of original theatre – it’s an antidote to the current national mood and I heartily prescribe tickets to you all.

Pippi Longstocking runs at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate until December 31, tickets cost from £11 (less than £50 for a family of four) via https://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/ or by visiting the box office.

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