Benet Catty Productions

Pinocchio (WE 2018)

Mar 1, 2018

NT Lyttelton

Disney has had considerable success taking some of their most loved animated films and transferring them onto the musical stages of the world. They began with Beauty in the Beast, a Vegas-style staging of perhaps the best of the 90s rejuvenation of the Disney brand. The Lion King has recently become the highest grossing stage show in history, approaching its 20th anniversary in London. Mary Poppins, with Cameron Mackintosh, has flown around the world. Aladdin, an entertaining if slightly pedestrian musical, is now in its second year in London. Others, like The Little Mermaid and Tarzan, have yet to make it here but have been successful in America and Europe.

But this is the first time that one of the “big 5” original Disneys have been adapted for the screen, here initiated not by Disney themselves but by the National Theatre.

There’s lots to look forward to with Pinocchio. It’s a National Christmas show (which is what War Horse was), the adaptation is by Dennis Kelly (who did the same for the world-beating Matilda), the design is by Bob Crowley (the best designer in the world) and the direction is from John Tiffany (lately of Harry Potter on stage, currently sold out until the twenty-second century).

Pinocchio begins well. Snow falls and we hear the gorgeous When You Wish Upon a Star (perhaps the most iconic Disney song) sung by a heavenly choir. It ends similarly well. But in the intervening two and a half hours it takes for the puppet to find his way to humanity, this is a musical more to admire than like.

Its big visual idea is for the ‘real’ characters to be puppets and the puppet Pinocchio to be real. The puppets and furniture are all scaled up, so we see a real actor on a vast table, for instance, which immediately plays with our perspective. It’s charming and it impresses, but it doesn’t involve.

The score, too, is a great achievement. Leading arranger Martin Lowe (whose previous work includes the dazzling Once, also for Tiffany, and Jerry Springer The Opera) has gone back to the original manuscripts provided by Disney’s archives. He has woven underscores and songs cut from the original 1940 film, combined them with European folk music and expanded versions of the five songs we know (“I have no strings” most prominently) and turned the whole into something of its own. But, again, one admires the achievement of the construction of this new score rather than being washed along by it.

Even the design from Crowley feels insufficiently eye-grabbing. The puppets (designed with Toby Olie) are impressive but the design is mostly surrounded by black walls and black backgrounds which gives the stage an oddly dead feeling. A (very over-long) scene in a fairground offers much more visual interest.

The cast of twenty can’t quite escape the woodenness of Dennis Kelly’s lazy script which too often goes for obvious child-friendly gags. The brilliance of Matilda, not least Kelly’s work on it, was that it is a children’s story in which the audience is never patronised. Here, it’s hard to see the appeal of the show if you don’t have young children.

The title role needs a breakout turn, along the lines of what Charlie Stemp gave to Half a Sixpence: another second-rate show that was made first-rate by production values and high-quality casting. Joe Idris-Roberts is energetic and charming, occasionally even touching, but the material doesn’t really let him dazzle. There are some nice performances – Annette McLaughlin as Blue Fairy and Audrey Brisson as Jiminy Cricket were both very charming – but in the main it’s all a bit too broad.

That your dreams don’t come true with Pinocchio is primarily to do with tone. While it is imaginative and theatrical and warm, it rarely if ever achieves magic. There are no “wow” moments where one is taken back to being a child again; no moments of wonder and pizazz. It is impressive, often engaging and the performances are charming – particularly Idris-Roberts – but I’d have a long nose if I recommended it.

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