Last Updated on 11th August 2015
The Adventures of Pinocchio
8 August 2015
One forgets how dark and grim the tale of Pinocchio really is. It is a proper scary tale rather than a fairy tale, although there is a fairy. Little minds enjoy the thrill of a good scare. Opening such minds to dark truths and honest realities is as important as teaching manners and that everyone should be treated equally.
Theatre can unlock, or rather keep unlocked, the imagination. Theatre designed to entertain and captivate young minds is essential. Horizons are broadened, fears are overcome, understanding is achieved. These days, spectacle is often substituted for the simple joys of “play acting”; huge, impressive sets and costumes and special effects seem more important to producers than stimulating a child’s imagination, touching their soul or sending their thoughts racing on a moonbeam. More is never enough and Less is rarely thought of as More.
Happily, though, spectacle is not the God behind the production of The Adventures Of Pinocchio which is now playing at the Greenwich Theatre. This is not to say that the production is a spectacle free zone, it’s not, but the spectacle here comes from a combination of the production and the imagination of the audience. If you are willing, it takes you on a wild, rewarding journey, where nothing can be something, foxes, cats and crickets can talk, the same face belongs to different characters, treachery lurks around the corner, and the magic and power of love and loyalty can save the day.
Director Bronagh Lagan ensures that simplicity and honesty defines the production. The cast of five work ceaselessly to engage and captivate the young audience for whom this piece was devised. Judging by the fierce concentration and excited smiles on the faces of the young in the audience, Lagan and her cast have struck utterly the correct balance. Wrapped up, not just in the story, but in the way it is told, the youngsters were paying rapt, silent attention, marvelling at how inventive and available to them live theatre was. One has no doubt that some youngsters there had never seen anything like this before – but they liked it, could copy it at play at home, and would happily return for more.
Pinocchio is, of course, a puppet. A wooden puppet and perhaps the most famous the world has known. So, it is fitting that the production begins with a silhouette puppet show, as the major characters are introduced and the backstory about Gepetto’s loneliness is told. This is beautifully, but uncompromisingly, done. The sad fate of Gepetto’s wife is explained directly: the youngsters know that this will not be all laughs and fun things. Interest is piqued.
Puppetry, in its broadest sense, is used throughout the production in various ways, so it provides a clear thread through the adventure. It becomes a metaphor for manipulation and thus provides real fodder for the adults in the audience. This is especially true in the Terra Di Ragazzi section when things go dreadfully wrong for Pinocchio and Lampwick.
Different characters are suggested with costume augmentation and character acting. The simplicity of this approach pays dividends – the intended audience is alert to the small changes, the different characters, and follows the action effortlessly. Hopefully, their adult charges do too.
The book is direct, playful and full of insight. Characters are sharply and quickly defined. Writer Brian Hill and Composer/Lyricist Neil Bartram are an accomplished team; their 2009 musical, The Story Of My Life, has enjoyed international success. The score is amusing and tuneful, with many outstanding numbers. You can feel the influence of Sondheim and Rodgers on the composition of the score – a very positive thing. Numbers such as “What Will You Be?”, “Money Grows On Trees”, “Terra Di Ragazzi” and “Being Real” are superb, with happy melody lines and catchy accompaniment. They pulse with pleasure.
Musical Director Freddie Tapner has done a first-rate job. The singing and playing is first rate and the balance is finely judged. You can hear pretty much every word that is sung, especially critical for little ears. The small band produces great, focussed accompaniment, full of vivacity, challenging you (almost) not to dance or sway along.
The cast, too, is first rate.
Christian James is a wonderful Pinocchio. He completely captures the sense of the character’s otherness and separation (being living wood) as well as a newcomer’s desire to explore and a child’s desire to rebel. The sequence where he learns about lying and his nose growing is genuinely delightful, as is the way he quickly shaves off his extra growth before Gepetto’s return.
His wide-eyed, unsuspecting journey in the world, his rudimentary understanding of commerce and chancers, his willingness to trust – all of these attributes are brought into focus as Pinocchio’s adventures begin when he disobeys Gepetto and goes to the circus rather than school. James masterfully conveys all this, and shows also Pinocchio’s growing understanding of the world and the consequences of the hard lessons learnt.
Equally, he has a lot of fun with the role, sometimes gently and sometimes exuberantly. He has a great, firm tenor voice and knows how to use it to best effect. He gives full value to Bartram’s score. “Being Real” is a particular joy. He can dance too and makes light, precise work of Grant Murphy’s jolly choreography.
Martin Neely is in superb voice as Gepetto and he brings warmth and gravitas to the role as father. In turns gentle and then fearful (for Pinocchio), Neely epitomises the worried new father. His clear joy when finally reunited with the errant Pinocchio is beautifully and touchingly conveyed. Rachel Louise Miller, as Fairy and Narrator, provides the feminine parental figure and she is poised and endearing throughout. She sings with that special radiance fairies require; every note is clear and bell-like.
Miller also plays Annette and the driver, two of the many characters Pinocchio encounters on his travels. She plays all her roles with distinction and difference, as does Ceris Hine whose roles include the talking Cat, the Puppet Master and Mary. I particularly liked the feral energy of her Cat and the blustery assurance with which she defined the rapacious Puppet Master.
Hine’s partner in mischief, in her Cat persona, is the talking Fox, played with energy and dazzle by James Charlton. With good looks, a showman’s sensibility, a fine, ringing tenor voice with delightfully free top notes, and a good line in smiling and dancing, Charlton is a perfect choice for both the Fox and Lampwick, his other major character. He also animates a puppetry allusion to Jiminy Cricket; a nice touch. Charlton has excellent audience rapport and a clear, easy style with his fellow actors. He energises every scene he is in and the two numbers he features in are show stoppers.
Lagan has presided over an excellent production of an interesting and involving musical which provides a fresh, but refreshingly old-fashioned approach to the entertainment and stimulation of (especially) young minds. You leave wanting -desperately – to be able to bring youngsters to more theatre just like this.
Photos: Claire Billyard
The Advenures Of Pinocchio runs at the Greenwich Theatre until 23 August 2015