Pinocchio

Reviewed by Flossie Waite
A National Theatre production
Playing until April 10th
For ages 8+

Disney’s 1940 animation Pinocchio lurches from sentimental to sinister, from Jiminy Cricket’s tender When You Wish Upon A Star, to the nightmarish transformation of naughty children into donkeys. Though based on Carlo Collodi’s 1880 novel, the film is at once both darker – the traumatic metamorphosis of delinquent boys into slave animals a case in point – and sweeter: Pinocchio is innocent and naïve (rather than narcissistic and inconsiderate), Geppetto is a kindly toymaker (rather than a moody old man), and the small role of the talking cricket is expanded to become the hero’s conscience and companion. By comparison, John Tiffany’s stage version is even more creepy and disturbing, with only occasional moments of optimism and sap largely led by the music (and, no doubt, memories) of the Disney classic.

Pinocchio, the puppet creation of his devoted ‘father’ Geppetto, longs to be a real boy. It’s a wish that leads him away from his workshop home and into the arms of a villainous fox who promises to reveal the secret to becoming human. Pinocchio’s quest sees him first sold to the travelling showman Stromboli, then captured by the Coachman and taken to Pleasure Island (where naughty kids can smoke, drink and stick their fingers in sockets but at a high price), before finally ending up in a great whale’s digestive system.

Joe Idris-Roberts plays a more thoughtless, inconsiderate Pinocchio than Disney’s incarnation, though he’s just as likely to lie. The production’s central conceit is that though this wooden boy longs to be real, he is performed by a human, while the other main human characters are played by oversized puppets, their huge heads looming over him ominously.

The National Theatre’s Pinocchio works best when it can fully flex its macabre muscle. Martin Lowe’s score expands on the animation’s five songs, weaving them together with folk music and the film’s original orchestral score. The iconic tune, When You Wish Upon A Star, is intermittently teased before a full rendition during the show’s crowning moment, though it always feels like a song from a different story, syrupy and sweet in a way that this Pinocchio is not. I’ve Got No Strings, however, is more successful: the sound of the trapped marionettes’ descent into an increasingly frenzied dance as the corrupt and hateful Stromboli lingers in the background.

Pinocchio’s time in Pleasure Island cuts to the true, creepy quick of the production. Dawn Sievewright’s turn as Lampy, the charismatic chief mischief-maker who takes Pinocchio under her wing, captures the tragic fate of the misbehaved children, an episode that once would have been moralising but now is disturbing and cruel. Cloven hooves and large furry ears suddenly appear courtesy of Jamie Harrison; his illusions see Pinocchio’s nose grow as long as a broom handle, and the Blue Fairy glide across the stage like a shooting star.

Though a play about identity, Pinocchio doesn’t know what it is, caught between two visions of the story: a weird and eerie new imagining, or the cherished animated tale. Perhaps the show should have cut its strings to Disney.

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

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