Andrew Pepper: House of Pepper

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Andrew Pepper

House of Pepper

Live at Zédel at the Crazy Coqs, London, UK, October 23, 2017

Reviewed by Fiona Coffey for Cabaret Scenes

Andrew Pepper

Billing himself as a “cabaret clown and all-round farce of nature,” Andrew Pepper promises “impossibly tight trousers, highbrow nonsense, limby lunacy, contemporary dance, sophisticated song stylings, less sophisticated song stylings, show tunes, foot stomping, and the splits.” House of Pepper certainly delivers on these promises, although I do not recall the splits. But, by the end of the evening, we also discovered much more to Pepper than initially meets the eye.

Dressed in matching bright pink waistcoat and yes, tight pink trousers, with a huge yellow flower corsage and gold crown, Pepper makes his entrance as pianist James Church strikes up the National Anthem. Pepper begins the show with a genius piece of audience participation which sets the stage for a non-stop display of effortless tomfoolery, high-octane song and dance in which Pepper leaves no stone unturned in his quest to tease, dazzle, and ignite the room with his own seemingly limitless supply of energy. Opening with the Pink Martini-recorded “Ich Dich Liebe” (Max Kolpé /Lotar Olias/Karl Vibach) with introductory banter underscored by Church, before launching into Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman’s “Use What You Got,” this sequence establishes Pepper’s trademark style: a barnstorming, no-holds barred, grab the audience by the goolies and give them everything you’ve got aesthetic. After only ten minutes on stage, one might reasonably wonder where else Pepper could go, but, as it turns out, he has a number of other tricks up his sleeve.

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If he needs a breather, he simply takes time out to lean against the bar and extol upon the virtues of pineapple juice while Church continues to play, patiently awaiting the start of the next song. He might casually inquire how audience members feel the show is going, or wander to the banquette seating for a chat.  Before we know it, he has whisked a gentleman onto the stage to serenade him with Jeff Blumenkrantz’s ballad, “Hold My Hand.” And when a fellow cabaret artist in the audience leaves somewhat publicly for a bathroom break, not only does Pepper wonder out loud whether we should all hide, he makes it happen. Fifteen or so audience members happily crouch behind the bar to deliver the spontaneous surprise, with predictably hilarious results. It takes confidence and sang-froid to wander off-piste to such an extent, but this is the essence of Pepper’s act: to keep the audience in a permanent state of motion, never fully sure of what will come next. Church is perfectly suited to the task of accompanying Pepper, effortlessly anticipating his next move, underscoring throughout, always maintaining the flow of the show while Pepper cavorts, pirouettes, subverts, improvises, and interrupts himself, never staying in one physical or emotional place for very long.

This dazzling and meticulously executed display of shape-shifting showmanship would have remained as such, had the atmosphere not changed quite dramatically, about fifty minutes into the show. As Pepper sang “Gran Torino” (Jamie Cllum/Michael C. Stevens/Clint Eastwood/Kyle C. Eastwood) slowly, soulfully, allowing the song to do its own work, the surprise this time was the degree of sustained heartfelt investment and the absence of sassy asides.

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Following this with a genuinely touching story of an old man who used to live in his neighborhood, Pepper led us elegantly and movingly into Leslie Bricusse and Cyril Ornadel’s “If I Ruled the World.” And as he kept revealing more layers, the show found new levels of power and substance. The finale, a fantastically spirited and accomplished rendition of “Jackie” (Jacques Brel/Mort Shuman/Gérard Jouannest), brought us back to the mood of the opening, but with a slightly less frenetic energy. 

For my money, this final twenty-five minutes, capped with a superb encore of Tim Minchin’s “Not Perfect” was where House of Pepper found its heart and soul.  Through moments of stillness and simplicity, Pepper created a world beyond limby lunacy and tight pink trousers and I for one was very glad he took us there.

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Fiona Coffey

Fiona Coffey joins our review team as a cabaret enthusiast and jazz singer, just as she makes her sell-out debut on the London cabaret scene with a self-devised tribute to her alter-ego Mrs. Robinson. She has hosted jazz evenings and performed at a number of venues including The Crazy Coqs, The Pheasantry, and 606 Club. In her day job she is a leadership development coach, travelling around the globe, working with a hugely diverse population of executives, as they grapple with the challenges of leadership and organizational change. Having recently expended most of her writing energies on her doctoral thesis, she welcomes the opportunity to entertain and inform a different audience through Cabaret Scenes.