“Do you want puppets?”
No matter the weather, as you walk into the Lyttelton’s auditorium for Pinocchio, you’ll find that it is snowing. A simple trick but one that inspires just the right childlike wonder for an adaptation of such a popular fairytale, but it is also a sense of magic that John Tiffany’s production of Dennis Kelly’s adaptation sometimes struggles to hold onto, as darkly disturbing as it is exuberantly heartfelt.
That darkness comes from several directions. The narrative cleaves closely to the moral instruction of a fable so Pinocchio’s struggle with the dark side is presented as a straight-up choice between good and evil – make the wrong choice in dealing with the Fox or the Coachman and things could end up pretty grim, as we witness in a particularly brutal bit of puppet mutilation (it shocked even me!).
And staging-wise, the choice to use giant-sized heads to represent key figures like that Coachman or Pinocchio’s creator Geppetto adds a looming, sinister tone to the atmosphere which never really seems to settle. For if Kelly and Tiffany had been allowed to make this a version of Carlo Collodi’s original, they’d’ve probably nailed it but this is, however, a Disney co-production and so we’re treated to those famous songs interpolated through the score.
It’s hard to find a place here for the likes of ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life For Me)’ and the desperately old-fashioned ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ though and there’s a rare lack of conviction from movement director Steven Hoggett in terms of how they’re dealt with visually. The result is a tone that feels confused and thus rarely truly engaging, though I must say the children sat near to me seemed to enjoy themselves.
And there are plenty of bright spots. Audrey Brisson is the stand-out performer as a modern-inflected Jiminy Cricket (curiously the only character to receive such treatment), Jamie Harrison’s illusion work is suitably spell-binding and for all its strangeness, Joe Idris-Roberts’ wooden boy traces an affecting journey into hug-loving humanity. If not quite a festive smash-out-of-the-park hit, this Pinocchio still offers a unique, faintly creepy brand of entertainment.