Pinocchio – National Theatre, London

Writer: Dennis Kelly

Director: John Tiffany

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

The National’s Christmas show Pinocchio is a hybrid affair with The Fox and The Coachman played as old-fashioned pantomime villains while slickly choreographed numbers are straight out of a West End musical. But despite the cast’s best efforts, it’s the wooden actors who steal the show here.

The puppet creations designed by Bob Crowley and Toby Olié are spectacular and, with their monstrous heads and long arms, they tower over the human actors. You soon forget that there is a handful of people below their statuesque forms, working their limbs and the head. The puppets are probably a little scary for the kids, but hopefully in a good way. The Coachman, with his gruff Yorkshire accent, and his 60s’ Mary Quant-inspired suit, seems particularly frightening in the way he lumbers across the stage, gathering children on to his cart. The best puppet of all is the whale we only glimpse in the second half, terrifying in its underwater ghostliness.

The story will be familiar to anyone who has watched the Walt Disney film, although it’s hard to believe that this film was released way back in 1940. Geppetto, a lonely widower and a carpenter wishes for a son, and one day his wish is answered by the Blue Fairy who gives life to one of the marionettes he has carved. This wooden boy, Pinocchio, is selfish and wilful, and the Blue Fairy has to return to give him a conscience in the form of Jiminy Cricket. Pinocchio does all he can to shake off his conscience in order that he can continue his quest to be a real boy.

It’s a clever move to have Pinocchio played by a real actor while most of those around him are puppets, though, oddly The Fox is mainly human and it’s only his tail that operates like a puppet. Amidst these giant figures, Pinocchio really does appear to be a young boy although he is played by an adult, Joe Idris-Roberts. Energetic and with a fine singing voice, Idris-Roberts never tires and his Pinocchio is frustrating and endearing in equal measures. It’s always tricky for adults to play children, but he manages to channel a boyishness that is never patronising. Strangely, Pinocchio spends most of the first half shirtless, and it’s something of a relief when the other marionettes at Stromboli’s circus measure him up for a jacket.

Jiminy Cricket has changed gender, but this doesn’t really affect the play. Her fears about dusty surfaces and rogue bacteria have the potential to turn her into a dithering character Jane Austen might have invented. But Audrey Brisson works very well with this comical paranoia, and gets most of the laughs in this show. As the cricket puppet is small, Brisson has to spend most of her time crouching down, operating the strings, as well as talking and singing. She manages all this with aplomb.

While there are songs, you’d be pushed to call this a musical. Apart from two full numbers – one being, of course, I’ve Got No Strings – the rest of the music, including some tunes which were written for the film but never made the final cut, is mostly incidental.

Despite, Pinocchio’s visual wonders, director John Tiffany could do with speeding things up, especially in the second half which threatens to be a repeat of the first. The moral of the story is quite stolid too; that we should strive to be like everyone else seems a little conservative in a world where people are fighting for their differences to be accepted.

Runs until 10 April 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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