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Review: Pepperland at Royal Court Liverpool ****

And so, after all the planning, and all the anticipatory hoopla, Liverpool’s Sgt Pepper celebrations are finally off – and, aptly for this most innovative of albums, in colourful and creative fashion.

American choreographer Mark Morris was reported happy with the opening night of Pepperland, his new Pepper-inspired work receiving its world premiere as the ‘overture’ to Sgt Pepper at 50, and which deserves as wide an audience as possible during the rest of its short run in the city.

The piece is danced to a score by Ethan Iverson which marries the composer’s own singular take on a handful of Beatles’ songs, from With a Little Help From My Friends to A Day in the Life, and new connecting compositions with titles like Adagio, Allegro and Wilbur Scoville.

Wilbur who? A quick trip to the internet reveals the Scoville in question devised a scale to rank the spiciness of chilli peppers. Very clever.

In fact, it’s not just nifty musical nods to ‘Pepper’ in Pepperland.

The slowly unfolding opening sequence for example introduces the audience to Billy Shears’ friends who include Sonny Liston, Shirley Temple, a gurning Albert Einstein, a pouting Marilyn Monroe, and – as Clinton Curtis sings in a baritone with wonderful bell-like clarity – “a statue from John Lennon’s garden”, while the dancers populate the stage like a Technicolor Peter Blake collage.

Pepperland photos by Robbie Jack

Dancers move with deliberate yet languorous ease through a series of same sec and mixed double pas de deux, while Morris and Iverson have created a fiendishly tricky music and movement sequence to When I’m 64 where the beats in the bar vary from 10/4 to 4/4, giving the feel of time stretching and bending – and confusing the young audience members valiantly trying to clap along.

The piece is also suffused with humour, and what comes over more than perhaps anything else is how much fun the dancers appear to be having on stage. You almost want to leap out of your seat and join in with the Carnaby Street-clad chorus.

Iverson’s eclectic score is brought vividly to life by a small band which includes harpsichord, a wonderful, winding soprano sax, and the weird and other worldly sound of the theremin – possibly the only odd ‘instrument’ the Beatles didn’t use on Sgt Pepper but you can see how they might have done.

All these things - humour, innovation, musical creativity - combine to make Pepperland a fitting opening to a celebration of an album which pushed the boundaries in so many different directions half a century ago.

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