Pinocchio: The Disney classic has been turned into a magical puppet show ★★★★

A flamboyant musical dramatisation reminds us that this is a story about what it is to be human, finds Ben Dowell

Pinocchio, NT pic publicity

Pinocchio, the story of the wooden boy created out of a need for love, is familiar as a Disney animation that is now 80-years-old. What is wonderful about this fabulously imaginative production is the way it harnesses aspects of that classic, but goes back to the source text (Carlo Collodi’s novel of the early 1880s) and produces something bold and wonderful.

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The principal conceit is the use of large puppets for the main human characters – while Pinocchio himself is played by a human.

So Gepetto, the old man who longs for a son, is an enormous-headed creation, with lips that don’t move; he is operated and voiced by Mark Hadfield with a supporting team of two. The same goes for Stromboli, the wicked impresario who imprisons the young boy after he goes on his travels, and the Coachman. The Blue Fairy is human, but her presence is also signalled by a flaming blue light that floats around the stage. Pinocchio’s schoolfellows are an odd-looking bunch with bright blonde hair and white masks.

It is a daring and dazzling idea which means that the wooden boy is the most human-looking person on stage. It also deals with the scale issues – Joe Idris-Roberts’ Pinocchio does seem small and boy-like in their presence, as he does when clambering over Gepetto’s massive worktable. It does mean the puppets are oddly inexpressive, but there’s no denying the sense of dreamlike wonder – and nightmare – that the various creations foster.

Pinocchio is lured away from his father by the temptations of The Fox (brilliant villainy from David Langham complete with a fab tail) who promises worldly gain, while the Blue Fairy and Jiminy Cricket remind him of the realities of being flesh and blood – including pain.  Pinocchio must learn what it is to be human in order to become human. This involves various escapades with Stromboli’s theatre and the much more frightening experience at the Coachman’s “Pleasure island” (below), where a group of children are allowed to do whatever they like (smoking, drinking alcohol and, yes, farting) before they are turned into donkeys. Our hero then ends up in the body of a whale.

Pinocchio, NT publicity, BD

Rather brilliantly, Audrey Brisson’s Jiminy Cricket, while still a talking insect, is reimagined as a neurotic germaphobe and an enemy of gluten– an effective reminder of the mechanics of being flesh and blood.

The bold staging also makes it an excellent spectacle, a riot of colour and action. The Coachman’s fairground and the inside of the whale’s belly will linger long after the curtain is down.

But what I like most is that this is essentially Disney without the schmaltz, although the songs are all there including the toe-tapping An Actor’s Life for Me and When You Wish Upon a Star. It’s a reminder that Walt’s values aren’t always to be scoffed at.

Pinocchio, NT publicity

Pinocchio is at the Lyttelton, National Theatre until April 10. Box office: 020 7452 3000 or nationaltheatre.org.uk

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You can book West End theatre tickets from the Radio Times Box Office