Pepperland captures the joy of movement (4 stars)


credit: Mat Hayward

Mark Morris Dance Company returns to the UK with a mixed bag of psychedelic sweets

How do you bring to life an album that was created as a studio piece and not designed to be performed live? That was the question Mark Morris put to himself in 2017, when the City of Liverpool invited him to choreograph a piece marking 50 years since the release of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

One of the joys of Pepperland is that even if you know the album well, the show – and it is a show, revelling in its celebration of colour, music and movement – is full of surprises. Morris and his collaborator, composer Ethan Iverson, have taken Sgt Pepper as a springboard and dived into its textures, tempos, and motifs, blending selected tracks with original composition, all performed live by a 7-piece band.

There's an adagio to lonely hearts, a narcotic 'Within You Without You', and the showstopper: a full-cast chorus-line mash-up of 'When I'm Sixty Four'. Plus classic vaudeville beats in four-four, five-four and six-four time – simultaneously – that look and sound so fiendishly technical it's impossible to describe using words.

Morris loves music and form, he tells us in the post-show Q&A – and it shows in the piece. But there is bound to be a Marmite element to anything that uses a source so iconic. Some of the dance takes a literal approach to the lyrics – which works for 'Penny Lane' (an addition because it was intended to be on the original album) but feels misplaced in 'A Day in the Life'. And sometimes the classical roots of the choreography – the jetés and sweeping arms – can feel stiff and stuffy.

But then there are the moments that sing, such as in Iverson's Adagio, a tender tribute to coupling, where two lonely hearts come alive in a duet full of curious angles and lifts. There's a measured passion to the two men's moves, and a reminder that when the original album was released – the same year the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexual activities between men over the age of 21 in England and Wales – this kind of same-sex, mixed-race relationship would not have been able to openly express itself.

The moment is so beautiful and thought-provoking, it throws into relief the pure dance sequences spread throughout the rest of the piece, and in comparison they feel a bit empty – like there are themes bubbling away that could have been explored.

But the patterns, the Carnaby Street kaleidoscope costumes, the joy of movement, the movement of love, that's really what life in Pepperland is all about.

Reviewed at Edinburgh Festival Theatre.


Dance celebration of the Beatles' iconic album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by the ensemble Mark Morris Dance Group.