Got wood?

NT P 2

Set design? Check.
Enormous puppets? Check.
Special effects? Check.
Whale? Check.
Script?

[crickets]

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.

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One message, medium-rare

NT Network 1

“Fasten your seatbelt, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” No, wait, sorry, that’s Ivo van Hove‘s next show. This week, we’re all  going to be mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it any more. Possibly with dinner, if you paid for the onstage seats. With all due deference to Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies, which is currently playing two flights of stairs up, Network, adapted by Lee Hall from Paddy Chayefsky‘s screenplay, might be the theatrical thrill-ride of the year. Even if you know the screenplay quite well, you’ll be on the edge of your seat; this is a big, bold, wildly inventive, viciously satirical theatrical extravaganza, and Mr. van Hove appears to have thrown his entire bag of tricks at the Lyttelton stage – including the kitchen sink. And a full kitchen, and a bar, and a restaurant. Add an ingenious set by Jan Versweyveld, an endlessly inventive, eye-popping video design by Tal Yarden, a mirrored floor, a lot of video screens, cameras, a control booth, make-up chairs at the back of the stage in full view of the audience, live-action footage projected on a screen above the stage, and a quartet of musicians at the top of the stage pumping out a Kraftwerk-esque electronic score, and you’re pretty much getting the full Ivo van Hove. A seatbelt might actually come in useful: this production is a rollercoaster, and it never lets up.

NT Network 3

I’m not always a fan of flamboyant directorial trickery, and last year I felt van Hove’s production of Lazarus worked far better as performance art or as a gig than as theatre. This time, the technological cleverness, the design, the prominent positioning of audience members eating onstage, the look, the feel, the music, the (very, very fine) performances, are all working in unison towards the same purpose… and here is where a certain kind of purist may snarl, because that purpose isn’t quite simply about telling the story.

Lee Hall’s adaptation, in fact, stays very close indeed to Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay, although it strips away much of the terrorist subplot. This is still, as projected text informs us at the very top of the show, the story of Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston), a veteran newscaster whose on-air nervous breakdown precipitates a spectacular ratings spike for his third-rate television network, which in turn sets off a battle of wits between a driven, more-or-less psychotic producer from the entertainment division determined to exploit Beale’s ratings potential, and the president of the network’s ailing news division, who is deeply wary of the consequences of conflating news with entertainment. The action still takes place in the mid-1970s, although the tech elements use equipment that is light years ahead of anything available “in period”. The production delivers the story with admirable clarity, but there’s more than that going on here: above all else, this is an extended theatrical examination of the way we consume media, or perhaps the way media consumes us. Accordingly, van Hove places the entire show in a fully-functioning television studio that encompasses the entire Lyttelton stage. At home, we sit and flip channels, and shift our attention from the TV to a laptop to a tablet to a phone and back again without thinking about it, so there’s a constant tapestry of action onstage with the main focus constantly moving from live action to the screens and back again. There’s always several things going on in the background; van Hove does an exceptional job of directing your eyes to look where he wants you to, but if you look elsewhere you’ll still pick up relevant information, or at least an amusingly kitsch 70s TV commercial. We consume news as background noise while we’re eating or drinking or talking, so there are tables onstage where we, the audience in the traditional seats, can see an audience consuming food and drink as they watch the play. Several times, the actors play all or part of a scene right in the middle of the onstage audience, and at one point, the play completely breaks the fourth wall and the action moves into the stalls – at which point a camera is directed into the auditorium, and the view from the stage of the Lyttelton is projected onto a screen.

The line between live action and film is constantly blurred; one scene even begins (on screen, but live) outside on the South Bank and moves seamlessly indoors through the National’s corridors until it ends up in the onstage bar area. A warm-up man encourages the audience to join in at key points by shouting out that line – a weirdly uncomfortable experience, since you’re basically being asked to cheer a nervous breakdown. At one key moment video clips, solicited via Twitter, of members of the public shouting that line are projected onto the walls above the stage. Literally and figuratively, it’s an electric theatrical experience, and every element is designed to underpin Chayefsky’s satirical thesis about how people can be manipulated by a corporate-driven media when the boundaries between fact and entertainment start to break down – although the point isn’t made explicitly until a brief video montage shown after the curtain call at the end of the show. Over a couple of minutes, we see clips of  the inauguration of every US President from Nixon to the current incumbent – and that’s all it takes to make the dangers of reality-based entertainment blindingly obvious.

NT Network 2

What you’re getting, then, is a big dose of Marshall McLuhan wrapped up in a lot of shiny electronics and slick stagecraft (television, incidentally, is not the medium, it’s the hardware that delivers the message). It’s a dazzling spectacle, but the spectacle somehow never overwhelms Bryan Cranston’s astonishing performance as Howard Beale. It’s not simply that Cranston effortlessly holds your attention in the middle of a two-hour fireworks-display of a production, even from parts of the stage where you can’t quite see him. It’s that at the centre of an overwhelming, in-your-face production in which every element is designed to reinforce a satirical point about the dehumanising effect of mass media, he perfectly captures Howard Beale’s raw vulnerability and the pitch-black satirical comedy that runs through the heart of the show like the letters in a stick of rock. The “…mad as Hell” monologue is a tour-de-force; in a production packed from wall to wall with eye-popping directorial flourishes, nothing is more memorable than Cranston’s star turn. There’s equally fine work from Douglas Henshall (in the William Holden role), Tunji Kasim (the Robert Duvall role), and Caroline Faber (in the relatively tiny role that won Beatrice Straight an Oscar). Michelle Dockery deploys her two facial expressions to far better effect as Diana Christensen, the psychopathic TV producer (originally played by Faye Dunaway) who will go to any lengths in her quest for ratings, than she ever achieved in Downton Abbey. Surrounding the leads, there’s a stage full of supporting performers, technicians, cameras, and – oh yes – restaurant patrons; it’s a dense, sometimes overwhelming experience to sit through, but it works.

It’s also sold out, even before the reviews appear (I saw one of the final previews; press night is tonight, and in terms of sales the reviews are just about irrelevant). It’s worth lining up for day seats; this production raises a lot of serious questions, and shows us over and over again how terrifyingly prescient Chayefsky’s original screenplay was, but it’s also tremendous fun. As I said, this is a wild rollercoaster of a show, an edge-of-your-seat theatrical joyride that isn’t quite like anything else you’ll see this year. Even if you’re dubious – as I am – about self-consciously tricksy directorial flourishes, go. For once, the gimmicks work – and quite apart from the gimmicks, Bryan Cranston’s performance is one for the ages.

Just maybe do a vocal warmup first – there are signs in the lobby warning that the production “contains loud noises”, but they don’t mention that you’ll be making some of them yourself.

NT Network 4