I’m sitting in the stalls at the Lyttleton, flanked by two kids. I know the girl to my left: this is Qeiva. She’s ten years old and one of my favourite people to take to the theatre. She’s smart and sparky and utterly unafraid to say what she thinks. By the end of this dark and overly complicated take on Pinocchio – part pantomime, part shit scary fable, part nightmarish puppet show and part schmaltzy musical – Qeiva is plaiting my hair and sketching in my notepad. I’m fairly tempted to join her, despite all the imagination and thought that has so obviously been poured into this show (perhaps a little much too thought, a little too many flourishes and not enough plain fun).
Meanwhile, there’s the girl on my right. I don’t know this girl but she seems thrilled to be at the theatre. Some of the signs are good: she wriggles to the front of her seat and bounces about with excitement. She gets particularly animated when Pinocchio dances about with the other kids on stage – even if some of the children are wearing grey masks; drinking alcohol and puffing away on pipes; transforming into donkeys (the story just gets weirder and weirder). The girl to my right clearly wants to enjoy the vaudeville performance from the marionettes at Strombolio’s circus, but it feels a bit like a horror movie mixed with a kid’s birthday party (the marionettes look like murderous clowns) and it’s all a little confusing. There are moments that are genuinely frightening; I watch this girl hide beneath her mum’s arms, properly scared and increasingly alienated. And then there are great stretches of this show during which this girl visibly droops and slides down her seat, lost and painfully bored.
All in all, this is an exhausting, sporadically impressive but largely baffling show. It could’ve been so good. This new version of Pinocchio – which retains the original songs from the Walt Disney film that we all know and sort-of-love (more on that strange choice later) – is directed by John ‘Harry Potter’ Tiffany, a director who has such a natural feel for how to create magic on stage. The man is a genius when it comes to generating understated but oh-so-real-feeling magic in the theatre. It’s written by Dennis Kelly, of ‘Matilda the Musical’ fame – a writer unafraid of the ugly side of humanity and the naughty side of kids, yet a man whose writing always seems to long for love. All in all, it’s a potentially cracking team to bring the story of a magical wooden puppet – who only wants to be a real live boy – to life.
But something has gone a little wrong here. First mention must go to the puppets – co-designed by Bob Crowley (a master designer but not a master puppeteer) and Toby Olié, who designed the puppets for the Disney juggernaut, ‘Little Mermaid.’ Put simply, the puppets don’t quite work. It’s all exceedingly high concept stuff, and ultimately far too complicated for its own good. The puppets and set have been designed so that we see them all through young Pinocchio’s eyes. This means that everything is very large and that, whilst Pinocchio is played by an actor (an understandably but frustratingly wooden Joe Idris-Roberts), the other characters are played by huge puppets, controlled by at least two actors. So most of the principal characters – Pinocchio’s father Gepetto, the evil circus owner Stromboli, the sadistic Pleasure Island chap – are all depicted by stick body puppets, with huge lollilop heads. Some of the heads are amazingly realistic, and the eyes have a life-like twinkle to them, but they are massive, weird and cumbersome, and never begin to feel real.
The result is a show almost completely devoid of proper blood-flowing characters or warm relationships, which adds up to a family show with very little heart. The few characters that are played by actors, and not great looming puppets, are either far too fleeting – say the various groups of kids that poor Pinocchio encounters on his travels – or weirdly schmaltzy. Annette McLaughlin has the unenviable task of playing the Blue Fairy, who is absolutely more appealing as a very small flying ball of fire (the blue fairy’s mode of travel) than as a real live person. Every once in a while, McLaughlin pops up with a message or a song whipped straight from the movie; she’s either dreamily wishing on a star or sternly telling Pinocchio that with love, also comes pain. It all feels rather old fashioned, heavy handed and absolutely out of keeping with the rest of the production, which Kelly and Tiffany are so obviously at pains to make feel modern and dark, cool and complex.
The only two characters that really come to life are Audrey Brisson’s cricket (a warm bundle of anxiety), Dawn Sievewright’s Lampy (a kid with more charisma than all the other characters combined) and David Langham’s deliciously camp fox (who only occasionally lapses into panto-territory). But just as soon as we’re getting close to Audrey’s cricket, Jimminy falls into a hole and disappears for a bit; or just as Fox man is finally getting his furry mitts into the kids in the audience, his tail is chopped off and his power – for some reason – obliterated; or just as Pinocchio and Gepetto might be getting close, an evil fox appears, or a weird crowd of masked kids lures Pinocchio off to the circus, or poor old Gepetto is swallowed whole by a giant whale.
It’s mad. It’s ambitious. It’s silly and frightening and really annoying. There are some moments that are so dark they should come with a warning (The Fox shows Pinocchio he isn’t real by stabbing a knife into his chest!) and some songs and messages that are so sentimental, they’ll make you feel a little sick (is that blue woman flying straight down from heaven? I mean, really?).
Then there is the nose. As with so much of this show, an awful lot of thought has been invested in this nose but it just doesn’t feel right. Every so often, a slightly harassed-looking Joe Idris-Roberts is forced to cover his nose with his hands, wedge on some sort of nose-growing device and then hold very still as his nose rather warily and wobbily extends itself. It’s not very convincing and not entirely necessary in this show that is trying so hard to impress, but fails to make a lasting impression.
Pinocchio is on until 10 April 2018 at the National Theatre. Click here for more details.