Nottingham Playhouse/Sadler's Wells Theatre, London EC1
Opened 21 June, 1995

Not so much a summer panto as a family treat, Nottingham Playhouse's bilingual co-production with the Bari-based children's company, Teatro Kismet, is an inventive, effervescent re-telling of Carlo Collodi's tale, whose fizz begins before the house lights go down, as the players stage a stereotypically passionate dispute in Italian whilst setting up the stage.

Adapter Peter Biddle has eschewed any hint of saccharine Disneyfication: the cricket in Geppetto's workshop which tries to supply the voice of conscience (portrayed by a simple green glove with elongated antennae-like fingers) is, as in the original story, cheerfully killed by the puppet in his first selfish flush of life. At the end of the first act, Pinocchio is literally left dangling hanging by the neck from a tree in a forest composed of lengths of polythene tubing. Neil Irish's set has the economy necessary for a touring show all ladders and drapes but is versatile enough to conjure up a schoolroom, a dark wood or the ocean depths with a minimum of fuss whilst the performance continues unbroken in the foreground, accompanied by percussive sound effects played on stage by members of the cast.

Around a quarter of the script is performed in animated Italian with discreet translation - a strategy which, nonetheless, never threatens to slow the momentum of vibrant story-telling. Biddle's English dialogue is peppered with clichés played for laughs: a carabiniero remarking: "'allo, 'allo, 'allo", a teacher awarding Pinocchio "10 out of 10 and a gold star", even a group of schoolboys on their way to the Land of Games chorusing, "Don't worry be happy".

Monica Contini, as Pinocchio, tries a little too hard in early scenes, displaying the fake exuberance of a children's television presenter. However, the show unfolds to accommodate her in a commedia style of broad, joyous presentation. This approach only really fails in the Land of Games sequence, in which the paradise of a place without schools or rules is told rather than shown, with no greater display of absolute freedom than marching around the stage. In a cast which doubles and trebles parts at the drop of a hat, Pia Wachter, in particular, seems to crop up every five minutes or so in a different guise, from a laughing parrot and a friendly tuna fish to the benevolent Blue Fairy who, despite apparently dying several times, finally returns to grant Pinocchio's wish of becoming a real boy by dint of removing a clothes-peg "nose" from Contini's face.

Practitioners of children's theatre constantly point out that talking down to a young audience is the kiss of death for any production in the field; Teatro Kismet's unashamedly brash style, rooted in Italian theatrical tradition, succeeds gloriously in creating the sensation that they are not performers so much as playmates.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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