As primarily a reviewer of student drama, it was strange to be reviewing a production with the budget to do whatever the producers wanted, imagination permitting. Fortunately, the National Theatre’s production of Pinocchio is much more than a shallow, flashy pantomime, the likes of which are common during this festive season. It sets itself above the rank and file of Christmas productions through thoughtful alterations to, and expansions of, Walt Disney’s beloved classic.
Upon collecting my ticket, I was promptly handed a programme which doubled as a clever children’s notebook of fun activities – rest assured, mine is completely full of scribblings and I’m very proud of my personally crafted puppet, Amadeo. What immediately became apparent once I had prised myself from my booklet, however, was that Pinocchio himself is, ironically enough, one of the few main characters in the production who is not played by a puppet.
However, the puppets are more than a larger-than-life novelty to catch children’s eyes, as they not only solve the problem of Pinocchio needing to be smaller than the rest of the cast, but they also effectively convey the oppressiveness of the world Pinocchio inhabits and accentuate the grotesque nature of the play’s villains. In motion, the puppets are beautifully animated and emoted, a feat which makes one almost entirely forget the group of people onstage required to operate them. This is especially impressive in the case of Jiminy Cricket (lovingly animated and voiced by Audrey Brisson), considering how small the puppet is compared to the human actor.
Elsewhere, the world of Pinocchio is stunningly staged, and Joe Idris-Roberts navigates it very convincingly as the wooden boy. Stage transitions are used to great effect to depict how the frightening world shifts around Pinocchio as he is exchanged from one evil crook to another: the Pleasure Island scene, in particular, is a ‘pleasure’ to watch.
It is also difficult to express the extent to which Disney soundtrack scores benefit from a full orchestra, although I could sometimes catch glimpses of the conductor’s hand peeping through the floor during certain sequences, which slightly broke the immersion. Disney favourites such as ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ and ‘An Actor’s Life for Me’ gain immeasurable potency when performed in this way, heightened by the choreography onstage. ‘I’ve Got No Strings’ was even expanded to chart the whole story of Pinocchio’s exploitation at the hand of the gleefully wicked puppet-master, Stromboli (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr.), through to his performance, becoming more dissonant and minor as the mood requires. Such choreography displays creative storytelling and only serves to accentuate the disturbing nature of a scene in which Pinocchio sings about freedom whilst being threatened and imprisoned by his master.
In fact, most of the additions to, and modernisations of, the original script are welcome and help to flesh out character relationships and comic moments. The dynamic between Geppetto and Pinocchio is profound, and Mark Hadfield’s acting prevents the more touching moments from straying into melodrama. The standout star, without a doubt, though, is David Langham’s Honest John the Fox. While he now lacks a companion in Gideon, his enigmatic performance is more than enough to allow the character to stand alone. The modified script transforms the Fox into a charismatically flamboyant and verbose trickster who owns every scene in which he appears. Although he is no longer motivated by money, now just being pure evil, this pantomimic interpretation of the character breathes new life into the role.
Other editorial tweaks fail to connect, however, as some jokes are too complex for most children to understand and not particularly funny for adults. Jiminy Cricket’s obsession with cleanliness is overdone and jokes about bacterial disinfectant come across as nonsensical and do not benefit the depiction of the character. Other changes, such as how Pinocchio, Gepetto and Jiminy escape from Monstro, seem illogical. It was probably done to reuse Pinocchio’s famous quirk of his nose growing when he tells a lie in an attempt to create a more emotional scene; either that, or the producers were worried about lighting a fire onstage, but given the quality of the pyrotechnics and illusory gags elsewhere in the show, this seems like a missed opportunity. The Monstro scene in general marks a downgrade from the Disney film. Although it would be difficult to adapt for the stage a scene which was so ground-breaking in its original animation, the amount of creativity injected into the rest of the adaptation only highlights how disappointing this episode is in comparison. That said, this small blemish on an otherwise near-perfect production does little to detract from the whole.
Pinocchio is a visual and acoustic marvel, and the fact that Dennis Kelly and company have so seamlessly translated a Disney classic into such an effective piece of drama is commendable. Bold creative decisions and additions to the original tease out some of the film’s darker and more intriguing implications and, more often than not, innovate and improve upon the story. The result is a production which, like all the best Disney films, appeals to people of all ages.