First published in The Times, Friday December 13 2019
“A sad tale’s best for winter,” Shakespeare once wrote, and it doesn’t get much more melancholy than Carlo Collodi’s fable about the misadventures of a puppet boy who longs to become a real human. Put all thoughts of the cutesy Walt Disney version out of your mind: Dominic Hill’s production, based around the punchy adaptation by Robert Alan Evans, is a deliciously dark vision.
The mood of this show alternates between impish fun and the downright disturbing throughout. In the opening moments, the 12-strong ensemble swarms onstage to lead us in a rousing ditty about an Italian Christmas donkey, complete with actions. From time to time there are little sprinklings of festive snowfall, and there are some delightful comic moments, often courtesy of Andy Clark’s Fox and Stephanie Payne’s Cat.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
A creeping sense of foreboding is woven into the aesthetic, which unites Rachael Canning’s gorgeous Victorian puppet theatre design with versatile, transformative lighting from Lizzie Powell and the insinuating refrains of Nikola Kodjabashia’s score, played by the cast on an array of instruments. The red brick and high ceilings of Tramway, where the Citizens Theatre Company has taken up temporary residence, serve this gothic atmosphere well.
The beautiful, Hoffman-esque nightmare that unfolds includes unflinching scenes of delinquent children turning into donkeys and peril on the high seas. The sequence in which one struggling marionette gets her strings chopped is heart-rending. Irene Allan alternates between poise and mania as the baddie, Florenzina. This is one seasonal show that may not be for the faint-hearted.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
But in truth, Hill’s production is at its most affecting in its exploration of flawed humanity, embodied by Gary Lilburn’s lonely, steadfast Geppetto. The characterisation of the little wooden boy is also poignant. As designed by Canning and operated with great attention to detail by Liam King and Eliza De Grey, this Pinocchio is every inch the uncertain child, stumbling through a world of trouble and learning about adversity the hard way.