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Pinocchio at the National Theatre – review round-up

Joe Idris-Roberts in Pinocchio. Photo: Manuel Harlan Joe Idris-Roberts in Pinocchio. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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As theatres around the country sparkle up with sequins and dial up their dames for panto season, Rufus Norris’ National turns to a fairytale of a very different sort. Pinocchio, the story first penned by Italian children’s author Carlo Collodi in 1883, is certainly no Cinderella.

Collodi’s tale, familiar to most through Disney’s 1940 animation, follows the exploits of a mendacious young puppet, who dreams of becoming a real boy. The National’s stage adaptation is written by Dennis Kelly, directed by Cursed Child helmsman John Tiffany, and stars Joe Idris-Roberts as the eponymous puppet. It remains in rep in the Lyttelton until April 10.

Tiffany’s production is the first time Pinocchio has made it from page to stage with the blessing of Disney, and in something of a coup, the animation studio has allowed the use of several original songs from the movie, including the iconic When You Wish Upon a Star.

But can the RuNo regime end 2017 on a high with a festive fairytale for everyone? Does puppet master Tiffany pull the strings with style, or is Pinocchio a mess of crossed wires and tangled strings? Do the critics warm to this precocious puppet, or is it all a bit wooden?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews

Pinocchio – Peopled with puppets

Joe Idris Roberts, James Charltonin and Audrey Brisson in Pinocchio. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Joe Idris Roberts, James Charltonin and Audrey Brisson in Pinocchio. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Pinocchio is really quite a bizarre story: a carpenter crafts a puppet, who is given life by a fairy, but is desperate to become a real boy, and goes on several strange adventures with his cricket sidekick to get there, his nose growing whenever he lies. How does Tiffany realise this fantastic, episodic fable on stage?

“The big idea is simple but logical,” says Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★). “Since the story is about a wooden creation who strives to be human, why not put puppetry at the heart of the show? So Geppetto, Pinocchio’s paternalistic creator, and the sinister Coachman who rules over Pleasure Island both become giant-size puppets.”

“It works a treat. Since Pinocchio seems quite real from the start, it puts authenticity, not maturity, at the heart of being truly human,” writes Matt Trueman (Variety), while Susannah Clapp (Observer) observes how “flesh and fabric, original and imitation are beautifully, disconcertingly entangled.”

For some, Tiffany’s staging enriches Collodi’s story, Billington likening it to “a modern version of a medieval morality play” and Trueman noting that “in fact, it’s not far from a Disney version of Woyzeck: the tough little guy, battling his baser instincts, is pulled this way and that by polite society.”

Others, can see what he’s trying to do, but find fault with his execution. Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★) thinks the production’s tone “veers all over the place”, Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) reckons Kelly’s script “ambles when it should boyishly skip and leap”, Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage, ★★★) finds it “flat and heavy-handed”, and Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★) spots “a curious disconnection at the play’s heart.”

And still others think Tiffany’s vision is fundamentally wrong-headed, Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★) finding it “horrid” and “aggressively child-unfriendly”, Miriam Gillinson (Exeunt) calling it an “exhausting, sporadically impressive but largely baffling show”, and Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★), although himself a fan, pondering whether might not be “soul-shatteringly terrifying for younger children.”

“My adult side, which observes and admires creativity, intelligence and flair, was agreeably engaged,” recalls Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★). “The child in me, which wanted to be entranced, wasn’t.”

Pinocchio – Un-Disneyfied


David Langham and Joe Idris Roberts in Pinocchio. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Tiffany’s big concept is met with mixed reviews, then, some finding it a dark and dangerous delight, others wondering what on earth the National thinks children these days like. Most critics agree, though, that his staging looks spectacular at least.

“It is easy to draw up a list of items that make Pinocchio beguiling,” writes Clapp. “An unexpected levitation. Invisibly wired flying. The star that dances down to flick across the stage as a guardian angel. The grinning gob of the whale that floats on and swallows up key members of the cast.”

The design is “lavish” and “beautifully proportioned” according to Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★), “spectacular and magical” according to Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★), and is “simple and sumptuous at once” according to Shuttleworth.

“There’s an emphasis on tangible stage magic, an almost analogue pleasure,” observes Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★). “Jiminy Cricket first emerges with puffs of dust; Pinocchio’s nose grows with the audible creak of wood; Blue Fairy is a hovering flame; the wire work is genuinely spine-tingling; and when a tail sprouts or a finger gets burned, there’s a visceral quality to the well-disguised trick.”

And what about the music? How well do those classic Disney tunes work on stage?

“This is the first time that the Disney organisation has given its blessing to a stage version of the 1940 movie and Martin Lowe as music supervisor does some lovely, ingenious work, with his orchestration and embellishments, in stringing out, the handful of ridiculously catchy songs that comprise the score,” explains Taylor.

“All the songs are there, including the somewhat cloying When You Wish Upon a Star, but they have been put to new use,” adds Billington. “An Actor’s Life for Me becomes a rousing ensemble that straddles several scenes and I’ve Got No Strings turns into a big number in which the doll-like dancers finally crumple into a heap while Pinocchio defiantly struts his stuff.”

“You could imagine these being reworked into elaborate showstoppers, but here it’s almost aggressively un-modern, the music a haunted relic,” writes Lukowski. “It feels considerably less heartwarming than the film.”

Pinocchio – Real Live Boys

Audrey Brisson, James Charlton and Joe Idris-Roberts in Pinocchio. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Audrey Brisson, James Charlton and Joe Idris-Roberts in Pinocchio. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Tiffany’s cast is a mixture of performers and puppeteers. Alongside Joe Idris-Roberts’ eponymous hero are David Langham’s Fox, Annette McLaughlin’s Blue Fairy, Audrey Brisson’s Jiminy Cricket, and Mark Hadfield’s puppet-maker Geppetto.

“Idris-Roberts is a delight,” writes Tripney. “He’s an engagingly impish presence and there’s real precision in his performance, whether interacting with puppets, both large and small, or clambering over and around Bob Crowley’s set. David Langham is a pleasingly vulpine villain (with a superbly swishable tail), even if his motivation is somewhat muddy, and Annette McLaughlin brings warmth to the role of the Blue Fairy.”

Most critics concur, Taylor finding Idris-Roberts’ Pinocchio “at first wayward and selfish, then fired up with a rather desperate and naive determination” and Billington writing that Idris-Roberts is at his best when he “captures the sheer exultant joy of self-propelled movement.”

“I was very fond of Audrey Brisson’s OCD Jiminy Cricket, with her constant worries about bacteria and germs, and David Langham is excellently oily and terrifying as The Fox, catching a perfect tone of menace and madness. Hadfield anchors the whole thing with his warmth and his sense of loss,” adds Crompton.

There’s plenty of love for Brisson, in fact, Clapp opining that “her voice and sweet-clown demeanour are perfect for Pinocchio’s conscience”, Taylor thinking her Jiminy Cricket “adorably worked and voiced”, and Treneman finding her “an absolute hoot.”

Not everyone agrees, though. Letts finds Idris-Roberts’ Pinocchio “bland”, and Tripney calls Brisson’s Jiminy Cricket “a chirrupy irritant.”

Pinocchio – is it any good?

A scene from Pinocchio. Photos: Manuel Harlan
A scene from Pinocchio. Photos: Manuel Harlan

Kelly and Tiffany’s vision of Pinocchio is far closer to Collodi’s 1883 story than the beloved 1940 Disney adaptation: it’s deeper, darker, and wilder, but it’s also spectacular, inhabited by larger-than-life puppets, stuffed with coups-de-theatre, and accompanied by a classic cartoon score. Just don’t go in expecting family-friendly, festive fuzziness.

A bundle of three-star reviews, with some four-star and two-star write-ups thrown in as well, points to a production that’s far from the worst show to open in the National this year, but is not quite the Christmas present Norris would have hoped for.

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