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Pinocchio review at National Theatre, London – ‘tonally muddled’

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

There are moments in John Tiffany’s stage version of Pinocchio that seem engineered to seep into your dreams – and not always in a good way. It draws on Walt Disney’s 1940 film, the studio’s second feature-length animation, which itself drew on Carlo Collodi’s novel of the 1880s.  The result is an often sentimental story tempered with moments of near-hallucinogenic oddity.

Pinocchio is a puppet, carved from wood, who longs to be a real boy. He’s also a bit selfish, prone to telling porkies. Abandoning his doting creator/father Geppetto at the behest of a scheming fox, he goes in search of fame, ends up being sold to Stromboli, a travelling showman, almost gets turned into a donkey, all before ending up trapped in the belly of great whale.

At times, Tiffany’s production resembles one of those disturbing central European animations that used to crop up on Channel 4 at 2am. This is partly down to the fact that one of the production’s chief devices is to have the human characters represented by disconcertingly massive puppet heads, while the school children that Pinocchio encounters resemble the Midwich Cuckoos in their matching uniforms and eerie white masks. Joe Idris-Roberts’ Pinocchio is the most human-looking entity on stage.

Though it looks a treat the tone of the production veers all over the place and Dennis Kelly, who previously wrote the book for Matilda, struggles to bring tension to Pinocchio’s quest for humanity. The decision to saddle sidekick Jiminy Cricket (here a puppet with glinting amber eyes voiced by the perky Audrey Brisson) with an unexpected germ-obsession is an odd one that turns the character into a chirrupy irritant.

There’s magic here. The score by Martin Lowe, which takes the original Disney songs – When You Wish upon a Star, Give a Little Whistle – and expands them, fusing them with folk songs, successfully stirs the emotions.. Jamie Harrison, who worked with Tiffany on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, creates illusions that are effective and plentiful. Donkey ears sprout from heads. Noses grow. The increasingly frantic I’ve Got No Strings dance sequence at Stromboli’s marionette theatre is a real highlight, slickly choreographed with an edge of menace by another Cursed Child cohort, Steven Hoggett.

Idris-Roberts is a delight. 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.

But the production as a whole suffers from a lack of momentum. The first half in particular lacks a sense of urgency and the blend of the creepy and the sweet never quite resolves itself.

John Tiffany: ‘New plays are where my heart is’

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John Tiffany directs a tonally muddled, often genuinely scary, staging of the classic children’s story