Saturday 13th January, 2018 at the National Theatre.
The National Theatre’s production of Pinocchio, complete with selected songs from the Disney film (Leigh Harline, Ned Washington and Paul J.Smith) features some wonderful puppetry, theatrical illusions and some sweet moments of heart and humour. While this is by no means a staging of the Disney movie of Pinocchio, the basic storyline remains, with poor, sad Gipetto who wishes for a son as he makes puppets in his workshop. The Blue Fairy takes pity and provides; little Pinocchio arrives to warm the heart of Gipetto, but being made of wood, he of course has no common sense or knowledge of any sort, and no conscience. Despite being allocated a surrogate conscience in the shape of Jiminy Cricket, his brainlessness makes him easy prey for the likes of The Fox and his various exploitative acquaintances. With heavy themes of looking before you leap, steering clear of temptations, avoiding strangers and being loyal to your parents, the story will be evergreen with parents it seems. This ambitiously staged production by Dennis Kelly, adapted by Martin Lowe and directed by John Tiffany, does well to impress with scenes of vibrant sets and costuming. But while there’s enough wizardry with lighting and staging to inspire wonderment at the spectacle on offer, there’s something lost in translation when it comes to the puppetry.
Taking the lead in this production as Pinocchio is Joe Idris-Roberts, who is comically clumsy and endearingly eager to learn and to please. I was pleased to see Audrey Brisson in a new role having recently seen her mesmeric performance in La Strada. Here, her charismatically charicatured Jiminy cricket (puppeteered jointly and fluently by Brisson and James Charlton) has as many irrational qualms resulting in comical, borderline-hysteric ranting as the Aunt in Lemony Snickets. Idris-Roberts and Brisson also offer the best singing voices of the production, with both offering sweet notes while Brisson blends them seamlessly into full bodied notes which remain gentle and in keeping with the ‘though she be but little, she is fierce’ characterisation. David Langham makes a suitably mildly threatening Fox – growling his words enough to indicate malice while swishing his tale and strutting enough to invite titters. Annette McLaughlin’s Blue Fairy is full of wisdom and maternal concern while both Gershwyn Eustache Jnr as Stromboli and David Kirkbridge as the Coachman create larger than life villains worthy of panto booing and hissing. Casting Dawn Seivewright, who recently went down a storm in the decidedly more blue Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour in the key role of Lampy brings the second half to life very quickly. Just as with Our Ladies, Seivewright is a dominant force and here she offers a funny, feisty young lass with a hefty left hook. Jack North makes a fantastic sympathetic victim of Lampy as poor Waxy – nicely toeing the line between loser and lovable. The production also benefits from a lively ensemble in the shape of Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge, Anabel Kutay, Clemmie Sveaas and Jack Wolfe – offering some fantastically vibrant scenes of puppet shows and lairy bad kids most definitely worthy of note.
There are some sinister moments in this production of course, but it’s a pretty safe bet for young audiences who can handle mild threat and some haunting lighting. Lighting Designer Paul Constable and Sound Designer Simon Baker allow us moments of tension in the wonderful sequence of Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket at the bottom of the ocean; luminous paint betrays a looming whale as Jiminy’s voice becomes full of bubbles and the pair are suspended in mid-air to create a beautifully credible vision of the pair floating in the depths of that deep sea. Such design trickery is used well throughout, with the gradual variations of the whale being particularly memorable as each glimpse offers a different interpretation of that creature so key to the finale of the story. Also memorable is set and costume designer (also puppet co-designer) Bob Crowley’s conjuring of a giant world in Gipetto’s workshop, allowing the real actor to take on the proportion of a child as Pinocchio through cleverly manipulated perspective; with over-sized furniture and an uber marionette for Gipetto, Pinocchio is by comparison small and sweet.
Now, if you’re offering a show which features puppetry on any scale, you’ve got an instant audience member in me. So when I heard that the National was putting on Pinocchio and puppetry was an inevitable selling point, I’ll admit, my expectations were pretty up in the clouds. The uber marionettes used in this production for every grown up are brilliantly made; Gipetto in particular is beautifully constructed, with a face which is gentle and warm, just as it should be for this good-hearted and lonely man. That realism of design is both a blessing and a curse though, as the stationary face remains like a painting: completely unmoving and therefore rather speedily flat. When coupled with the limited movements of the body, the character is disappointingly inexpressive despite the warmth of the face and the feeling voice of Mark Hadfield. With early scenes so dependent on the marionettes, their lack of flexibility and restricted movements make the scenes feel slightly laboured as the puppets feel static – I’d have happily sacrificed some of the beauty in favour of a moving jaw, eyebrows or eyelids I think – something to make those puppets more engaging after the initial impressive visuals as we sit impressed by the scale and aesthetic.
Puppetry Director and Puppet Co-Designer Toby Olié (Bob Crowley also co-designed the puppets) do make distinctive characters through puppet design though; the villains have disproportionately large heads to make their ‘otherness’ more emphatic and their over-sized grins more sinister. Jiminy Cricket is cute, with a lime green body and big, bright eyes and complete with delicate bobbing antennae. The most expressive part of the puppets, aside from the life-like design of Gipetto is the glinting eyes. When Gipetto’s voice and scenes become emotional, the shine of the eyes translates as tears, and when Gipetto feels joy, the eyes glitter appropriately – the eyes don’t change of course, they don’t even have eyelids to blink, but the design allows for shifting meanings, which is always a marker of good puppetry. My biggest disappointment with the puppetry is the inexplicable scrapping of the Gipetto marionette at the close of the play – suddenly we lose the trickery of the proportions and it somehow suggests that Gipetto himself was a puppet who transformed into a real man just as Pinocchio transforms into a real boy…there is nothing else at all to suggest this addition to the narrative so I confess that I remain puzzled by the decision to put poor Gipetto out in the wings!
Above all, this is most definitely a seamless production which allows the sorcery of the growing nose and the unexpected appearance of props to have a lasting impression; so important are the slight of hand moments in fact, that Jamie Harrison is credited as solely responsible for the ‘Illusions’. Originally a story by Carlo Lorenzini in the 1880s (I do love an informative programme rather than a mere collection of marketing pages – thank you National Theatre!) and a hugely successful Disney classic thereafter, the National Theatre has set itself the challenge of re-inventing the story through subtle choices and ambitious design. It’s a Pinocchio production which toys with the original set up through experimentation with proportions and casting the grown ups as puppets and Pinocchio as a real actor. It’s an interesting approach which serves the production well in many ways, but the puppetry needed to be more versatile and expressive in order to carry the production as substantially as is evidently needed. Nevertheless, it’s a clear winner for young audiences and the theatrical trickery is certainly worth seeing – as is the brilliant cast!
Pinocchio is suggested for age 8 and above and plays until April 10th 2018. You can get your tickets here!