Set design? Check.
Enormous puppets? Check.
Special effects? Check.
Oh. Oops. Never mind.
There’s a lot to unpack about the National Theatre‘s new adaptation of Pinocchio, whose poster chooses to inform us that it uses songs from the Walt Disney film while neglecting to mention either Carlo Collodi, who wrote the original Italian novel that every iteration of this story is based on, or any of the authors of the Disney screenplay (there are articles on both buried inside the programme, but that still falls short of giving credit where credit is due). Clearly someone hoped this would be another War Horse or The Lion King, and – with work – it could be. As it stands, despite a few rave reviews (and some less enthusiastic ones, and some very, very negative word-of-mouth during previews), it probably isn’t going anywhere without some kind of overhaul.
Bluntly, the show is suffering from an identity crisis. There’s a beautiful, if sometimes sparse, scenic design by Bob Crowley, who is also responsible for the tremendously detailed costumes. The songs from the film, and additional music sourced from material created during the film’s production process, sound terrific in Martin Lowe’s new arrangements and orchestrations, and there’s an excellent 15-piece band in the pit. Crowley and puppet co-designer Tony Olié have designed fabulous larger-than-life puppets to represent the story’s adult figures and Jiminy Cricket (Pinocchio himself is played by an adult actor, as are all the children in the story), enabling a spectacular perspective shift in the final scene. Jamie Harrison’s illusions are sometimes eye-popping and always impressive. Everybody involved – including Dennis Kelly, who wrote what passes for the script – does a good job of telling the story simply and clearly. John Tiffany’s staging almost always looks good, and the last few minutes of the show are genuinely wonderful.
A lot of water has to flow under the bridge before you get to those last few minutes though, and the production is holed below the waterline by the simple fact that nobody involved seems to be sure of exactly what kind of show they’re doing. The National Theatre’s publicity materials advertise it as being “for brave 8-year-olds and above”; OK, but there were audible signs that a good number of the children sitting behind me (I was in the cheap seats in the front row) were becoming restless over the show’s two hours of stage time. It’s not unreasonable to expect children that young, or even younger, to pay attention over that length of time, particularly since there’s an interval – each act runs around an hour – but you have to meet them halfway. Despite the grindingly over-enunciated Play School delivery adopted by most of the cast – a tone which frankly is a little on the young side for a show intended for children older than 8 – that’s exactly what the show doesn’t do. A prologue in which the Fox – in this version, he’s never referred to as J. Worthington Foulfellow – cuts down the enchanted tree whose wood Gepetto uses to make Pinocchio’s head and body is simply too long; it’s lovely to look at, but by the time we’ve seen the Blue Fairy magically appear, obtain the wood, and commision Gepetto to make a puppet out of it, getting on for a quarter of the first act has passed before the plot enters familiar territory. That’s OK in a show for adults, but a tough sell in one aimed at children.
If the show opened with a musical number it might get away with it, but the creative team, bizarrely, appear to have spent the entire production process sitting on the fence about whether they were making an actual musical or just a play with a few songs thrown in. Where songs are used, they are sometimes – sometimes – very effective, but then the show keeps undercutting itself in the transitions between song and dialogue. Choreographer Steven Hoggett makes I’ve Got No Strings into a terrific production number towards the end of the first act, but it doesn’t end on a button, which means there’s no opportunity for the audience to applaud. That’s more important than it sounds, because there’s a reason (most) musicals allow the audience to applaud after each number: the applause releases tension and functions almost as a reset button, and without that tiny pause the transition from song back into speech is often more difficult for the audience to negotiate. That’s unfortunately the case here: in the following scene, you can feel the audience’s attention start to wander, and this pattern is repeated all the way through the show.
Act Two’s lengthy Pleasure Island sequence is also problematic, and is the physical production’s one great misstep. For no discernible reason, Bob Crowley’s designs for Pleasure Island jump from storybook Victoriana to a mid-Twentieth-Century aesthetic that is straight out of a two-and-six Ladybird Book. Lampwick, the young tearaway Pinocchio befriends in Pleasure Island, is rechristened ‘Lampy’, played by a woman, and endowed with a pudding-basin haircut and a slathered-on-with-a-trowel Glaswegian accent so reminiscent of Wee Jimmy Krankie that it can’t be a coincidence. Leaving aside the sheer laziness of London-based theatre practitioners using a working-class regional accent to define a character whose main attribute is bad behaviour, the sequence is jarringly out of kilter with everything else in the show, and it doesn’t really work on any level.
The show is best, actually, when it stays close to the heart of the story: Gepetto’s yearning for a son, and Pinocchio’s longing to become a “real boy”. Mark Hadfield is quite moving as Gepetto, and the conceit of the presenting the character via a three-times-larger-than-life puppet until the final scene works very well. Joe Idris-Roberts – a human playing a puppet – captures Pinocchio’s pysicality very well indeed and doesn’t shy away from the character’s essential obnoxiousness in the first half. Audrey Brisson’s just-irritating-enough Jiminy Cricket is a convincing conscience for Pinocchio, although if you grew up watching children’s television in the 1970s she might put you in mind of a bossier, germ-phobic Carol Leader on a cocaine bender. Their scenes generally work rather well, as does anything involving Annette McLaughlin’s mesmerising, gorgeously-sung Blue Fairy (McLaughlin is also the only member of the cast NOT to fall victim to what I suppose we might call CBeebies Syndrome when delivering her lines). The trip inside the stomach of Monstro the whale is brilliantly spooky, and the final few minutes, when Gepetto finds his son, Pinocchio finds his humanity, and order is restored, are glorious, as is McLaughlin’s closing rendition of When You Wish Upon A Star, the Disney film’s biggest take-away tune. At that point, finally, this Pinocchio feels like a show that works.
It takes far too long to get there, though, and that’s a pity, because there’s a wonderful show buried in here somewhere. The effects are marvellous – the Blue Fairy appears as a tiny blue flame floating high above the stage, then appears to step out of thin air in Gepetoo’s workshop. The Fox throws a knife at Pinocchio and it hits him – and sticks – right in the middle of his chest. Pinocchio burns a finger and the Blue Fairy makes the burn disappear with a single touch. That final sequence in which Pinocchio is transformed into a real boy is absolutely magical. For an adult, a lot of the rest of the show is entertaining enough (we’ll draw a polite veil over the entire Pleasure Island sequence). For children, even of the suggested age range, Kelly’s script and Tiffany’s production are simultaneously a bit too self-consciously arty and arch, and a little bit condescending. If this is a show for children older than 8, the actors don’t need to speak as if they’re addressing a kindergarten. It sometimes seems as if nobody on the creative team has ever met an actual human child.
It’s probably not, then, the greatest choice for an Easter holiday treat for kids. For adults, particularly if you’ve any nostalgia for the Disney film, it’s worth the cost of a day seat and a couple of hours of your time. Some of it is wonderful – but all of it could have been, and the good stuff here is more than worth another look. Maybe if you wish upon a star, Kelly and Tiffany will take another pass at the script, kick up the pace in the first act, work with Martin Lowe to turn the piece into a proper musical, and make a definitive decision about whether they’re pitching the show to nostalgic adults or very young children. You never know; as the song says, dreams can come true.