Given their impressive track record for successful children’s shows, playwright Dennis Kelly (Matilda), director John Tiffany (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and designer Bob Crowley (Mary Poppins) have fallen well under the radar of their best work with the National Theatre’s Christmas show Pinocchio. Just because wood features so prominently in their adaptation of Walt Disney’s beloved 1939 animated classic, there is no excuse for the overall woodenness of their concept.
Strip the staging of its sporadic visual magic – notably the floating blue flame that represents the ethereal presence of the Blue Fairy, the growth of Pinocchio’s nose every time he tells a lie, Pinocchio emerging fully formed from the bark of a magic tree – and some deep-sea floating effects, and what you’re left with is reminiscent of an indifferently scripted and indifferently performed high-school production. There’s a darkness (literally) and a dead weight attached to Carlo Collodi’s timeless story that robs it of its essential scariness, its enchantment and its message.
In this version, Pinocchio’s insistence throughout that he wants to be “a real boy” doesn’t really convince because, as played by a somewhat mature Joe Idris-Roberts, he is, for all intents and purposes, a real boy, the single indication to the contrary being the wooden sound we hear whenever he taps his head.
Apart from the Blue Fairy (Annette McLaughlin, the only cast member with a decent singing voice), the humans –puppet-maker Gepetto (Mark Hadfield), the Coachman (David Kirkbride) and the villainous showman Stromboli (Gershwin Eustace Jnr) – are represented as giant-sized carnival puppets (courtesy of Toby Olie) whose expressions never change, and who are manipulated by their human-scale selves.
As for Jiminy Cricket, the most endearing creation in the film, here the character is the least successful and most irritating of the production’s concepts. In this version, Jiminy is a screechy, female puppet insect, voiced and manipulated by Audrey Brisson. As every kid who’s seen the film or read a version of the original story knows, Jiminy is Pinocchio’s conscience. But there’s very little in Kelly’s adaptation to justify this. This Jiminy is obsessively and annoyingly concerned with her health and little else. Really tiresome.
The sequence depicting Pleasure Island, to which naughty children are banished, is a confusing mess, unalleviated by “movement director” Steven Hogget’s staging of the show’s defining number, “I’ve Got No Strings”, which is reprieved several times during the excessive two-and-a-half-hour running time. Also heavily milked are the Oscar-winning "When You Wish Upon a Star," "Hey Diddle-de-Dee" and "Give a Little Whistle," by Leigh Harline, Ned Washington and Paul J. Smith.
Trying desperately to emerge from the depths of this unfocused adaptation is the morality tale of a wooden boy who can only become human when he acquires the virtues of truth, courage and unselfishness. The basic elements are there, but even though the show runs an hour longer than the Disney film, the message barely registers.