It may seem daft at this time of year to send a professionally bah-humbugging adult to review any children's show. In fact, any production worth its salt will, in that awful canting phrase, "speak to the child in all of us"; and if not, well, one can always watch the audience response.
So: the numerous children (mostly, I would estimate, in the eight-to-eleven-year-old range) at the press performance of Pinocchio began by applauding musical numbers politely, but the inevitable fidgeting, coughing and whispering began (I timed it) within some ten minutes of the opening curtain, before Pinocchio himself had been carved by Gepetto out of a talking log. As Act One reached its muddily recounted close, a young voice somewhere to my left piped up in puzzlement, "What's happening?"; later, though still before the interval, another asked more directly, "When are we going?" Not for another hour, little one.
Adaptor/director Anthony Clark and his composer Mark Vibrans (the team behind Birmingham Rep's successful adaptation of The Red Balloon) have set out to create a family rather than a children's show but, whilst admirably determined not to behave condescendingly towards their littler constituency, they steer so far in the other direction that the play frequently lapses into sententiousness. Nuggets of wisdom such as "Actors go to such lengths to tell the truth, they lie" are sprinkled through the proceedings; if this is Clark (as he professes in the programme notes) in non-didactic mode, one must be thankful for small mercies. Kevin Austin has a particularly tough break as Grillo the cricket, Pinocchio's self-appointed conscience, although Austin plays him so unnecessarily surly that I for one wished the hammer Pinocchio threw at him had finished the job.
The songs are hummable by adults but not singalongable by children; they are accompanied by occasionally wonderful staging (not even in a Lewis Carroll show will you see a pair of crustaceans samba-ing), but are received tolerantly rather than enthusiastically by youngsters.
Neil Warhurst is (of course) a mischievous Pinocchio, though not an especially compelling one; Cal McCrystal makes a lovable Gepetto and Nicky Adams an unusually robust Blue Fairy (briskly advising the wooden lad at one point to "Get a life!"). Ruari Murchison's design includes a number of neat touches, including a magnificent whale shark. The performance drew warm applause – but, in a telling sign of its main appeal, the few cheers came from grown-ups.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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