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Weird, edgy, visually stunning Disney adaptation from 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' man John Tiffany
A few eyebrows were raised at the National Theatre’s decision to hop into bed with Disney and co-produce a stage musical version of the 1940 classic ‘Pinocchio’, about an animated puppet boy who desperately wants to be human. With ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ director John Tiffany at the helm, and ‘Matilda’ man Dennis Kelly on script duty, is this just a naked attempt by the NT to drum up a fresh West End hit to replace erstwhile magic money tree ‘War Horse’?
‘Pinocchio’ is right up there with ‘Cleansed’, ‘Here We Go’ and ‘Evening at the Talk House’ as one of the least compromising NT projects of recent times.
Okay, it’s the least abrasive of those shows, but next to Disney’s glossy West End musicals ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Aladdin’ it’s a virtual alien entity, suffused with Old World darkness.
Tiffany and his hyper-talented creative team – headed by designer Bob Crowley and puppetry director Toby Olié – have imagined the ‘Pinocchio’ world as a dizzyingly strange place in which almost everyone either looks like a puppet or actually is a puppet. The adult human characters, including Pinocchio’s kindly puppetmaker-father Geppetto, are represented on stage by gargantuan constructs that loom over the little hero (played by Joe Idris-Roberts). Although they’re voiced by the human actors who stand at the centre of the puppet teams, it’s not the living faces we’re drawn to, it’s the artificial ones: sad, ancient Geppetto; satanic Stromboli; the brutish Coachman. They are huge and otherworldly, an uncanny Valley of the Kings.
With the rest of the cast peopled by magical beings (Annette McLaughlin’s Blue Fairy, who turns into a startling sapphire flame; David Langham’s murderous, elongated Fox) and even creepier humans (the masked local schoolchildren are pure ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’), it’s certainly got the most sinister ambience of any family show I’ve seen. Where Disney’s film gave the characters from Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel ‘The Adventures of Pinocchio’ a cutesy American veneer, this strips it away to the dark wood underneath.
Apart from ditching the US accents, there’s not a lot of deviation from the film. There’s the odd bit of modernisation in Kelly’s wry text, notably in making Jiminy Cricket – the most lovable of the puppets – a pint-sized neat freak. But storywise, there’s no effort to update this surreal morality piece, wherein Candide-like innocent Pinocchio must negotiate the temptations of the world in order to be deemed fit for mortality. The plot is pretty crazy, really, as our hero, whose nose grows when he lies, drifts from a macabre marionette circus to an island where naughty children are turned into donkeys to the belly of a giant whale – all the while pursued by his anthropomorphised conscience Jiminy.
A more conventional modern musical might style this out with some jolly song and dance routines. But Tiffany has made a point of only using the original songs, in the original style: ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ is a delicate, mannered antique; ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee’ sounds small and deluded. You could imagine these being reworked into elaborate showstoppers, but here it’s almost aggressively un-modern, the music a haunted relic.
It feels considerably less heartwarming than the film: partly because it’s that much darker and colder, partly because its adult star isn’t as sweetly boyish as the film’s Pinocchio – muscled and amoral, at the beginning he feels literally inhuman in a way his animated counterpart never does.
So a great evening out for the whole family, right? I dunno. I liked it, but for its gothic strangeness, its exotic flights of fancy, its lavish visuals. It did seem like it might be soul-shatteringly terrifying for younger children (the age advice is ‘for brave eight-year-olds and above’). But I guess it’s not for me to say what kids find scary these days, and the ones in attendance on press night didn’t seem too emotionally scarred. It is a fantastically strange night, and if they were hoping for a new ‘Lion King’, it’s difficult to imagine bigwigs at Disney being thrilled. Which is possibly the highest recommendation I can give it. Brace yourself, and gawp in faintly terrified wonder for two-and-a-half hours