Pinocchio, National Theatre, London ★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

I, like most of us, first came to the story of Pinocchio through the 1940 Walt Disney film. The movie, only the company’s second full-length animated film, helped kickstart the House of Mouse’s tradition of softening and smoothing its source material in the name of entertainment: Carlo Collodi’s original stories, miniature morality fables set in the world of a magical marionette’s epic odyssey, are much darker.

But since Disney stamped his imprimatur on the puppet 77 years ago, many adaptations have explored the darker side of the story. So what tack would the National Theatre take in its new theatrical adaptation?

The involvement of Walt Disney Theatrical Productions provides some clue. True, there’s little visual resemblance to the film, but the movie’s songs by Leigh Harline, Ned Washington and Paul J Smith are used throughout, augmented by European folk music.

The orchestra, under conductor Tom Brady, plays constantly, underscoring the action during the long periods between big musical numbers.

And yet, despite the constant presence of music, John Tiffany’s production seems determined not to think of itself as a musical. Showstopping numbers are few and far between, and are often presented so statically as to rob them of any sense of thrill.

An exception is ‘I’ve Got No Strings’, when Pinocchio sings for his supper as a performer at Stromboli’s Circus. The re-creation of the rows of internationally-themed marionettes is the show’s best use of the ensemble. It also gives Joe Idris-Roberts his best opportunity to shine as the mischievous puppet, wishing for stardom instead of upon a star.

But annoyingly for a story about a marionette who wants to be a real boy, the design choice to make the adult characters themselves puppets distracts from Collodi’s morality tales. It also robs the actors of an opportunity to present real character.

Mark Hadfield’s Gepetto, for example, carries about him the air of an old man who, after life has passed him by, seizes the opportunity to have the son he always wanted. But any subtlety he may bring is subsumed by the need to have him and three other puppeteers support a huge torso and bulbous, expressionless head.

The technique is used for Stromboli and the coachman, to the same detrimental effect. Any menace that Gershwyn Eustache Jr may bring to the circus owner, any sense of danger embodied by David Kirkbride as the man who brings wayward kids to Pleasure Isle so that their hedonism will lead them to turn into donkeys – it all evaporates under a design inspired more by spectacle than by character.

The same technique is one of those used to embody Annette McLaughlin’s Blue Fairy. In her case, the character’s ethereal, haughty ambiguity actually works in puppet form, not least because her long, flowing blue cape obscures the puppeteers enough to enhance the illusion. But for her subsequent reappearances, McLaughlin returns on her own, without puppet enhancements; an admission, maybe, that the props are getting in the way of the story’s emotion.

Dennis Kelly’s script tries to make more of the Blue Fairy, suggesting that her magic imbued the wood Gepetto carved his puppet from and that she is his mother as much as the toymaker is his father.

It’s not an altogether successful portrayal, and sadly the best appearance of the Blue Fairy is the rather beautiful trick in which she is represented by a ball of blue flame, flying over the stage.

Also disappointing is the portrayal of Jiminy Cricket. Audrey Brisson, who impressed so much in La Strada at The Other Palace, lends her voice to a gender-swapped Jiminy who is saddled with character and dialogue that implies that one’s conscience is a dull, whiny killjoy.

More damagingly, though, it is the over-articulation of the cricket puppet, Brisson’s puppetry work supplemented by James Charlton, that kills the character.

Having two puppeteers work the creature lead to them overcrowding Jiminy, over-articulating the character’s legs for the sake of verisimilitude at the expense of personality.

Later, in a beautiful underwater sequence in Act II as Pinocchio and Jiminy descend into the depths as they hunt for Monstro the whale, Brisson works Jiminy solo.

It is a freeing move which helps the character finally come alive, making it all the more regretful that such an approach is not used throughout.

The whole underwater sequence is a visual delight. It is also one of its most animated. Throughout, everything feels a little too static.

In part, that is because some characters must remain in place for some of the show’s magic illusions to work. But there is no excuse for ‘An Actor’s Life For Me’, the show’s first full-length song performance, to consist of David Langham’s Fox and Idris-Roberts’ Pinocchio to remain rooted centr stage throughout their duet.

I suppose it is to the National’s, and Disney Theatrical’s, credit that they have attempted to find a unique visual style for the production, rather than trying to emulate the movie’s designs – rather more in The Lion King territory than Aladdin’s, say.

But while the technical craft on display looks visually impressive, it never feels like it has the heart. One wishes it could succeed – but this is a hamstrung show that will never grow up to be a real play.

Continues until 10 April 2018. Image: Manuel Harlan

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