Review: Pipe Dream, Union Theatre

”You wonder where your heart can go”

As unlikely as it seems, there are still Rodgers and Hammerstein shows that have never been performed in the UK and in the hope of unearthing a little gem, Sasha Regan’s Union Theatre took on the 1955 flop Pipe Dream and given it the chamber treatment. Some of the songs may be familiar from State Fair which was recently very well-revived by the Finborough and unfortunately, it’s a comparison which does Pipe Dream few favours, as I couldn’t help but feel that this show had little to really commend it and pretty much deserves the obscurity in which it has languished.

Based on two John Steinbeck novels, Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row, the show focuses on the deadbeat end of society – prostitutes and layabouts populate this Depression-era world, an innovation which popular wisdom would have was too outrageous for 1950s audiences. The problem seems more to be the coyness with which Rodgers and Hammerstein treat this though – Suzy the heroine of the show works in the local whorehouse yet the conservatism of the writing never explains it properly, and this cripples her burgeoning relationship with marine biologist Doc which forms the backbone of the show, their pairing stuttering and staggering over obstacles which are never quite clear.

Regan’s production isn’t constrained by such morality and so is able to have fun in creating the bordello run by Virge Gilchrist’s Fauna, but this exacerbates the issues in the book which aren’t amended to reflect the explicit referencing to the girls’ employment. And alongside this sits a daft series of plot twists whose improbabilities feel tiresome rather than charming, making this a show that rarely engaged me in any meaningful way. Kieran Brown does his best as what has to be one of the oddest leading man parts out there, far too passive a character to lead us out, and Charlotte Scott’s Suzy likewise makes a decent fist of her tomboyish part.

But dramatically and musically it just isn’t a strong enough show to merit the efforts it receives here and even then, it doesn’t always feel as good as it could be. Lyrical clarity was poor at several moments throughout the show with the sound design muddier than one would expect at this venue and Lizzi Gee’s choreography didn’t sparkle in the way I craved. Part of the problem with the Union’s high standards is that it becomes difficult to maintain them, especially in the arena of obscure revivals and for me, the only real interest in Pipe Dream comes from the completist urges of seeing all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s works. 

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Kay Young

Booking until 31st August 

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