Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 10 April 2017
DISNEY ECHOES AT THE NT: YOU WOODN’T BELIEVE IT… The first glimpse of old Geppetto does make you gasp. He is immense, a huge benevolent head bowed attentively as great arms operate the strung marionettes below – who are of course real people, operating him. Like the other two giant characters who appear later, the wicked Stromboli and the deceiving Coachman, he is only a huge head and torso, with a tangle of puppeteers’ legs below.
Yet somehow the illusion works, not least because Toby Olié and Bob Crowley, the designers, have given him such an expressive, moving old-man face that the unmoving mouth is somehow not noticed. And of course, he looks just like Mark Hadfield, the human Geppetto among his puppeteers below.
Confusing? Well, it’s an old tale and a magical one. The deployment of spectacle and effects under John Tiffany’s direction and the remarkable tech and design team are not allowed to overshadow its old-fashioned moralities, though. The book, rewritten by Denis Kelly, is on touching themes: a child who knows he is different (being wooden), who has to learn unselfishness and humanity; a lonely father who searches, mourns, forgives and is rescued by the son he was trying to save. Joe Idris-Roberts has a sparky Blue-Peterish presence as Pinocchio, and Annette McLaughlin is a dignified Blue Fairy, when not fiddling with her hood or being represented by a really baffling flying blue flame across the Lyttelton’s big stage.
But there’s a curious disconnection at the play’s heart. It’s not quite a musical, not quite a solid play. Apparently this is the first time Disney has allowed the classic film’s songs to be used in a stage production: Martin Lowe has woven round them some lovely arrangements and extensions, and Hi diddle de dee works remarkably well, as does the vaudevillean rearrangement of the No Strings number as Pinocchio dances stringless with a brilliantly choreographed ensemble playing marionettes on coloured ribbons . But there are few good tunes there, and infuriatingly repetitive -“give a little whistle” can grate, as can the injunction to wish upon a star. Indeed Kelly’s take on Jiminy Cricket as not only a nagging conscience but a health ’n safety fusspot is a bit too annoying for an adult eye, and gallant though her operator is, she looks so uncomfortable shuffling round on her knees that adults wince.
Children? I think they’ll have fun (the problem with press nights is too few children to judge by. The ones who do come are too well-drilled to whoop). They will certainly be on Pinocchio’s side, not to mention appreciating the lairy Scottish girl Lampy who joins him on Pleasure Island with a Glasgow Saturday night cry of “wha’s better than smashing things and farting?”.
The Fox, by the way, is not a puppet but a suave, sneering panto villain with an impressively manoeuvrable tail (David Langham) and as for Monstro the Whale, words fail me. With help from a brilliant lighting design, that scene set everyone gasping. And yes, there is flying. Of course there is flying. It’s Christmas.
box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 10 April