3 stars out of 5
Pinocchio review – no wooden acting in an action-packed musical voyage
When Ivor MacAskill and Rosana Cade staged The Making of Pinocchio a couple of years ago, they used Carlo Collodi’s story as a transgender metaphor. Here in Hull, the approach of playwright Mike Kenny is less overt but the message is the same.
Eliza Blair’s non-binary puppet-child is not only on a voyage of self-discovery but also on a slow-burning mission to be accepted for who they are. “You’re my child and you are real,” says James Clyde’s long-suffering Gepetto at the end. “That’s all that matters.”
Being real, in this sense, is about more than turning wood and paint into flesh and blood. It is about being true to oneself.
Blair plays the role with an attractive guilelessness. They show every emotion as it hits them and, with temptations coming from foxes, cats, puppeteers and hucksters, there are provocations from every direction. They also sing John Biddle’s songs with a Broadway chutzpah, their Californian upbringing giving Pinocchio an unusually assured musical presence.
But Pinocchio is a tricky story to stage. Like a junior Peer Gynt, it is full of incident but reliant on a central character whose relationships come and go. The puppet learns from experience, becoming human in the process, but they are out on their own for most of the episodic story. Impressively, Blair is scarcely off the stage but despite catch-up sessions with a Blue Spirit (Fatima Niemogha) and a cricket conscience (Deb Pugh), their internal development is at one remove from the action.
Perhaps because of this, Mark Babych’s production seems at once busy and slow. Busy because the ensemble, wearing the muted colours of Siân Thomas’s Pierrot-themed costumes, are forever laying traps for the gullible Pinocchio. Slow because Kenny’s script dwells too long on what we already know. We learn skipping school is a bad thing early in the first half, but they are still singing about it in the second.
Tonally, Babych sets a mood of quiet storytelling in a silent opening sequence that explains the puppet’s magical properties. That works well, but when things get raucous, the production pulls in two directions. It makes for a show with spirited performances, lots of action and a happy ending, but not enough of an emotional lift.