The National Theatre’s family show of choice this season is a brand new adaptation of the classic story Pinocchio, based on both the classic Disney film and the original writing. Award-winning John Tiffany directs, bringing to life a show that has been in his thoughts for several years now – he’s joined on the team by long-standing collaborator Bob Crowley, as well as Toby Olié as puppet director. Well, it wouldn’t be Pinocchio without puppets, would it?
The story is probably familiar to most from the Disney film; it was one of the earlier animations, so has permeated the consciousness of several generations since its first showing. Carpenter Geppetto longs for a family, so ends up making a little marionette boy when the Blue Fairy brings him a very specific lump of wood to use. Before long he’s walking and talking, inquisitive about the world but incredibly trusting and slightly thoughtless. He longs to be a real boy, but that wish can only be granted if he discovers what makes a human – the Blue Fairy provides Pinocchio with a cricket (Jiminy) to act as his conscience and guide, however their relationship gets off to an antagonistic beginning. Thanks to his trust in the villainous Fox, Pinocchio finds himself in all sorts of trouble and only manages to survive thanks to Jiminy’s persistence…
The big twist in this particular production is the use of puppets. Rather than the expected single puppet of Pinocchio that then transforms into a real boy by the end, they are a constant feature throughout in the form of looming 12-foot figures. Manned by whole teams, including the actor voicing the character, they provide a real sense of scale and magic. Olié has co-designed the puppets with Crowley, between them coming up with rod puppets consisting of a large head and torso (but no legs) for the characters of Geppetto, the Blue Fairy, Stromboli and the Coachman. There is also a large whale (which made my jaw drop) and, of course, Jiminy Cricket. Jiminy is also a rod puppet, but a lot smaller in scale – often operated by just the actor voicing her, with just one other puppeteer helping out the rest of the time.
But what about Pinocchio? The big twist is that he’s one of the few main characters who isn’t represented by a puppet to start with. For one thing, this is a great idea to enable actors to take on the role – otherwise it would only be a brief part at the end, with a puppeteer taking on most of the responsibility. It also allows the show to flow with more ease, as well as really getting you to think about what it means to be human.
The show is set (at least in the minds of the creatives) in northern Italy, near the Alps, which is suggested in a few incidences of Italian popping up – most notably at Pleasure Island – and the music often having an almost Germanic folk feel to it. Bob Crowley’s designs are astonishing. The sets have simplicity at their core, but still make an incredible impact, be it Stromboli’s theatre or the inside of a whale. In terms of costume, the marionettes are a great highlight, as they really remind you of Venetian masquerades and Commedia dell’arte; bold colours combine with classic designs to make unforgettable images.
Magic also plays a key role in the show, particularly as the Blue Fairy floats in and out as a blue flame on several occasions. There are also a few other moments that will have you scratching your head and trying to work out how it was done – and if you ask Jamie Harrison (illusions) you’re not likely to get an answer. It’s just the additional touch required to make a stage production feel like the magical fairy tale it’s trying to depict.
The cast and puppeteers work seamlessly together, making this piece a true testament of teamwork. The amount of detail in the puppetry is incredible, made even more powerful by the resemblance of the puppets to their voice actors.
David Langham is the embodiment of villainy as the Fox, leading Pinocchio astray with ease – all to take his revenge. Annette McLaughlin and Mark Hadfield make strong alternative parent figures for Pinocchio as the Blue Fairy; the former is ethereal and caring, whilst the latter is full of good intentions but had a lot to learn about his new son. The role of Lampy has switched gender for this production, playing into Dawn Sievewright’s hands as a lairy Scot, fighting and farting her way around Pleasure Island.
In the newly female role of Jiminy Cricket, the hugely talented Audrey Brisson sparkles. There are a lot of quirks to this new Jiminy, including her obsessive germophobe ways – and she is incredibly spirited. Brisson has excellent comic delivery, which keeps the laughs coming as the antagonism melts into protectiveness. Joe Idris-Roberts excels in the title role, with just the right balance of naïvety and cockiness in his portrayal. He ensures Pinocchio remains likeable for the most part, in spite of his poor behaviour towards Jiminy and his father. Without a doubt a breakthrough performance for Idris-Roberts.
My verdict? A truly magical piece of theatre that will enchant children and adults alike, uniting them in a love for storytelling – the puppetry is top class.
Pinocchio is at the National Theatre (Lyttleton) until 10 April 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office – Friday Rush tickets are on offer for this production.