I couldn’t quite remember the last time I had watched the animated film version of Pinocchio, it was clearly some time ago, and through the innocent eyes of childhood, because as I re-watched it in preparation for seeing the new stage version, I found myself shocked at how dark it actually is. Not quite a dark as the Collodi novel on which Walt Disney himself based the cartoon, but children being turned in to donkeys, really?
This is the first time that Disney have given permission for the classic story to be staged, so the National Theatre, and director John Tiffany, must have felt some degree of pressure on how to set the tone. Write Dennis Kelly has, despite the festive season, avoided the obvious pantomime choice and elected to retain the more sinister accent.
Widowed and childless puppet maker, Geppetto is amazed when his boy puppet comes to life and adopts it as his son, naming him Pinocchio. The puppet who longs to be a real boy, is initially selfish and is led off on a number of pointless endeavors by The Fox, to achieve his dream, accompanied by his conscience, in the form of a cricket named Jiminy. While Pinocchio keeps finding himself in trouble, the Blue Fairy is often on hand to help out.
When the main character of a story is a puppet, then it makes sense for the production to involve puppetry, cleverly everything has been reversed, Pinocchio least resembles a puppet while almost every other character is one. Geppetto and Stromboli are oversized marionettes bearing down on Pinocchio, while Jiminy, also a puppet, is now a female character played by Audrey Brisson.
The puppetry is undeniably good, and the puppeteers do a fantastic job of keeping the focus on the puppets themselves, so you easily forget the puppeteer is there. John Tiffany casts his own magic spell over the production, with enchanting special effects, not least the glowing ember of the Blue Fairy, and the famous growing nose when Pinocchio lies.
While most of the cast are overshadowed, quite literally, by their puppet counterparts, Joe Idris-Roberts shines as Pinocchio, he perfectly captures that impish spirit, and desire to accomplish his dreams. His performance is filled with energy and passion, capturing the audiences hearts.
The original Disney music has been woven into this production, but given a little twist. ‘I’ve Got No Strings’ is now a bigger showstopper type piece, and ‘Give a Little Whistle’ acts as a motif throughout. Although, that famous tune ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ didn’t really have the impact I expected, given its resonance in so many childhoods.
Overall the stage version of Pinocchio feels a shade darker than the film version, the scene where the children on Pleasure Island are turned into donkeys verges on the disturbing. But, there are also plenty of moments of fun, this is a production that avoids the pantomime cliché and can be enjoyed by children and adults alike.