Photo  © Gareth Jones

I am confused.  Perhaps it is my age.  I really do not know what to make of Pepperland.  I love modern dance, I like a bit of cultural crossover and innovation, I have always like the music of The Beatles, but I just did not get Pepperland.

It is not the dancers, who are uniformly excellent.  The seventeen dancers who graced the Norwich Theatre Royal stage moved precisely and gracefully and appeared to be enjoying the work which blends some seriously clever dance moves into what overall looks rather light and whimsical.  Each dancer has the room to develop their own character and style within the overall constraints set by the choreography determined by Mark Morris, whose company perform Pepperland.

The performance lasts just over an hour, without interval or pause, and gives us colourful and lively dances set to thirteen tunes either directly taken from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or inspired by the presentation of the original album.  It is difficult when working with such globally well-known original music to adapt the performance to both suit a different production approach and make it supportive to the dance but Arranger Ethan Iverson has added considerably to his challenge by a distinctly odd choice of instruments with the melodies led by a curious combination of theremin and soprano saxophone and trombone in addition to keyboard and percussion.  Maybe I was pining for the guitar twang, although this combo certainly achieved some of the circus theatricality that distinguishes the George Martin original production.  The singing from baritone Clinton Curtis helped to anchor the music into our perceived memories.  The musicians are as impressive in their skills as the dancers are above them.  I shall not forget watching Rob Schwimmer leading the ensemble on occasions with a startlingly precise performance on the theremin, that most mercurial and curious instrument.  I will look out for his work in the future.

The interpretations of familiar songs such as ‘With a Little Help From my Friends’, ‘When I’m Sixty Four’, ‘Penny Lane’, and ‘A Day In the Life’ are charming and evocative with tales told in dance that match the lyrics.  Some of the other dances had a connection less obvious to me, but I realise that my knowledge of the language of dance is still at the learner stage, so maybe I missed some of the relevance.

The costumes and staging are joyful – a simple colour changing backdrop falls onto a shiny rockscape at the back of the open stage giving an unencumbered dance space which is fully used.  The costumes are apparently everyday clothes but in the brightest of colours, with eye-catching yellows, pinks, purples, reds and oranges and some startling checks.  The colourful outfits highlight the dance perfectly and convey an instant cheerfulness to the whole show.

So, should you go and see this curious show?  Unhesitatingly, yes!  If only so you can tell me a bit more about it to help my struggling understanding of it.  It is great fun, it is hard to classify yet memorable in many ways and it has that clever theatre-filling trick of drawing upon the familiar while presenting us with a completely new experience.  It is quirky rather than edgy and offers an enjoyable experience to all ages.  It is undoubtedly demure compared to the work of some modern European dance companies, nothing to frighten or over-arouse the more sensitive soul.

You will have to be quick to see it in Norwich – the final performance is today (Wednesday 24th April) at 8pm.  As I publish there are still a few tickets left, but be quick or you will miss this fascinating show.

© Julian Swainson 2019