Thursday 21 December 2017

Pinocchio at the National, or, Talking Down to the Children (Again)

Note: A review of the matinee on Saturday 16th December 2017.

Despite some blazing highlights (Follies, Angels in America) it has been another year of too many indifferent to poor productions for the Norris National, and this year's childrens show adds another failure to that list. Despite clocking in at modest 2hrs plus interval it feels at times painfully long. The narrative and characters lack emotional depth, the moral lessons are overly didactic in delivery, and though the cast do their best nobody really transcends the weaknesses of the material.

The first problem is the narrative itself which creaks rather badly. In case you're not familiar with it,  there are two strands. One – the attempts of Pinocchio to become a real boy by discovering what is the common element to all humanity. In pursuit of this he runs away with a travelling theatre and visits Pleasure Island. Two – the evolving relationship between Pinocchio and his father Geppetto. In this version the whole thing just never quite gels into a convincing whole. As the afternoon dragged on I found myself thinking of The Fantasticks – it shares similar themes – running away from a home life that seems dissatisfying and dull and eventually learning there is more to that life than was first seen. Of course the songs in that show are rather better which helps, but the book also possesses a greater subtlety, and the characters more depth. Overall here, Dennis Kelly fails to replicate the wit and heart that made Matilda such a wonder, and the moral dilemmas of the story left me cold.

The weaknesses in the material and the adaptation are not assisted by the production. It looks surprisingly cheap for the National, and lacks that feeling of magic which the best stagings of such stories possess. I'm tempted to wonder if the bulk of the money went on two things – the puppets (we'll come back to them but the bottom line is they look great, are finely operated, but never find the emotional power of those in War Horse or His Dark Materials) and a whale effect which if you blink you almost miss it. I did enjoy the Blue Fairy effect, but it gets over-used. Much of the time the stage, despite being reduced in size by clever lighting, looks surprisingly bare. Particularly bizarre is Bob Crowley's ladder theme – the cluster of enormous ones before the trip to Pleasure Island which nobody does anything with at all and the journey number (accompanied equally bafflingly by one chorus member scooting backwards and forwards on a bit of leftover Pleasure Island signage) are low points. By the end of the show it becomes clear that one of the points of the puppets is to deal with the problem of the end – all the adults are much bigger than Pinocchio while he's still wooden but then become normal humans when he becomes a real boy. This, in theory, enables the show to get round the problem of how to make Pinocchio wooden earlier on, and Joe Idris-Roberts does his best to distinguish his movements before and after but for me it didn't sufficiently work.

In terms of performers this is another occasion when the play is crying out for a really first rank performer to take a weakly written role and find something in it to transcend that. Sadly, there is nobody who is able to do so. Idris-Roberts works enormously hard as Pinocchio and I'd like to see him in stronger material. After her wonderful performance at Edinburgh this year in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk I'd had high hopes of Audrey Brisson. She's blessed with the only really good number in the show (Give a Little Whistle) and she does excellent puppet work, but I couldn't help feeling it was a waste of her physicality and command of expressions – seen to such good effect in that Edinburgh performance – to cast her in such a way. David Langham's villainous Fox is another struggling with an underwritten part but I'm afraid he caused me to think longingly of Anna Francolini's scene-stealing Captain Hook in last year's Peter Pan. My sympathies go to Dawn Sievewright saddled with trying to bring to life a tiresomely stereotypical Scot.

Possibly the ranks of children around the theatre got more out of this than I (although there was a little girl two rows in front who looked increasingly bored). But, as I've said on other occasions, the best children's theatre should be able to speak (as His Dark Materials and War Horse did, and to be fair Peter Pan in some ways last year) to a wide age range of audience – this is a failure in that respect. Altogether, it was another boring afternoon at Norris's National. Nothing would give me more pleasure in my London theatre going than to see a transformation in the National's hit rate in 2018, but after Norris's record thus far I'm sorry to say that I am not optimistic.

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