Music and Lyrics: Steven Schwartz
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Poor Geppetto! One minute he’s a successful toymaker living a bachelor lifestyle then one ill-advised wish later and he’s a single father to a human-puppet boy with a wilful mind of his own. Stephen Schwarz and David Stern’s My Son Pinocchio Jr reimagines the famous fairy tale from the perspective of its most forgotten character and, now licensed for youth theatre productions, has been given an energetic revival as part of The British Theatre Academy’s summer season at Southwark Playhouse.
Regretting his hasty desire for a son to carry on the family business, toymaker Geppetto asks the magical Blue Fairy to turn Pinocchio back into a lifeless puppet. Overhearing his father’s plan, the wooden boy runs away, first joining the evil Stromboli’s performance troupe and then on to the enchanting Pleasure Island. Meanwhile, Geppetto realises his mistake and sets out to find his son.
There is an inherent playfulness in Séimí Campbell’s production of this relatively unknown Disney-sanctified musical, taking a child’s bedroom as its design inspiration in which Gregor Donnelly uses giant building blocks, strong primary colours and children’s drawings as the basis for the show’s various locations. It means that scenes flow quickly into one another, and while there’s no doubting the abundant enthusiasm and talent of the cast all under 23, narrative clarity is sometimes lost in the melee.
In a story that goes back in time to the busy toyshop full of spoiled brats greedy for new playthings, to the difficult first days of being a new parent and then to the various locations that comprise Pinocchio’s journey to Pleasure Island, the rapid rearrangement of blocks means it’s not always clear where Geppetto is either physical or emotionally, although some of that is down to the rapid leaps in Schwarz and Stern’s story that keeps the production to under an hour.
But as with most youth theatre productions, it’s the performers you’ve largely come to see and there’s plenty of burgeoning talent on display. James Sampson brings a great deal of pathos to the role of Geppetto, struggling to understand the complex feelings parenting has induced and makes much of his emotive solos including ‘Empty Heart.’ While the character makes a rapid and unexplained about-turn in his feelings for Pinocchio, Sampson grounds Geppetto credibly in a mature and impressive performance.
Joy Clark’s Blue Fairy – styled as a punk princess in a denim jacket and tutu – also has a number of layers that a fuller production could explore in more depth but to which Clark gives plenty of substance. Particularly interesting is the underlying resentment about on-demand magic and inevitable happy endings which come across strongly in the song ‘Just Because it’s Magic’. Ethan Quinn’s Pinocchio is a secondary character but offers enough sulky resentment to sympathise with Geppetto, while from the remaining cast both Paul Sarte as a cheeky puppet and prissy horse and Felix Hepburn’s wildly gesticulating and accented Stromboli made sure they stood out with some excellent comic timing.
With a message about the troubles of parenting – “Why is that people who shouldn’t have children have children – and the need to let them decide their own future path, this production of My Son Pinocchio Jrcis a solid school holiday show. It’s a little scrappy and Campbell trades playschool antics for any real sense of magic, but with original Disney songs to singalong to, big characters and plenty of silliness, the charisma of its young cast holds it all together.
Runs Until: 14 August 2019 | Image: Eliza Wilmott