The Adventures of Pinocchio
Music by Jonathan Dove, libretto by Alasdair Middleton
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
Tonight I saw something I have never seen before in over fifty years in theatre - an audience applauding the iron going out! The Adventures of Pinocchio was due to start at 7.15, but at that time we were still looking at the safety curtain. And at 7.20. Then at 7.25 it rose and the audience applauded. But we still had just over five minutes to wait before the orchestra began to lay and the front cloth went up.
For the large number of young children in the audience - for this is very much a family opera, like the same authors' The Enchanted Pig which played at the Young Vic in 2006 - that was a long wait. So was it worth it?
Definitely. Dove and Middleton have captured the heart of Collodi's story and, with the aid of some wonderful work from designer Prancis O'Connor, brought it to delightful life. Without wanting to take anything away from the performers (of whom more later), for me the real star of the show is the design, both of set and costumes. Although it has to be added that choreographer Nick Winston also made a major contribution with the movement language he devised for the various animal characters and, indeed, the puppet Pinocchio. In fact, the whole creative team, expertly led and co-ordinated by director Martin Duncan, should be congratulated for this is one of those productions when everything comes together making it, as the old cliché has it, much more than the sum of its parts.
If I had to sum up the production in one word (What? Use one when a few hundred will do? Never!), it would be "inventive". And that applies to the music and the libretto as much as to the design. It begins with a log lying on the ground. Geppetto (a real fatherly figure from Jonathan Summers) enters, and a tinkling voice sings "Make me!" Absolutely magical! - as was the way in which Victoria Simmonds' Pinocchio gradually emerges as Geppetto moves his chisel over the log. The audience was hooked. A little boy in front of me, who couldn't have been more than four, sat open-mouthed.
Dove and Middleton banish all remembrance of that sentimental Disney cartoon. Pinocchio is not very likeable at all: he really is quite selfish and can be very nasty: the killing of his conscience, the Cricket (a superb performance by Rebecca Bottone), is nasty indeed - and the kids loved it!
The Cricket, in fact, sums up most of what is good about this production. The costume is great and the movement angular, jerky and unexpected, whilst the music (way up high) captures the essence of the insect.
The narrative line is clear (although I really must add my voice to those who cry for surtitles, even for productions in English) and follows the original closely. A succession of 25 named characters, plus the chorus and four dancers, keep the stage busy and hold the attention. The sinisterly purring Cat (Mark Wilde), the Fox (counter-tenor - a nice touch - James Laing), the three doctors (Owl, Crow and Beetle - and I loved Stephen Briggs' Owl!), the Parrot (another tour de force from Rebecca Buttone), a very popular Ape-Judge (Graeme Broadbent, who plays a succession of roles), four Rabbit coffin-carriers (very scary!), a delightfully cooing pigeon (Carole Wilson), a huge puppet Big Green Fisherman (operated by three people and sung by Graeme Broadbent), schoolboy Lampwick who turns into a donkey (Allan Clayton), Carole Wilson's slow and deliberate Snail and the totally delightful Blue Fairy, played by Mary Plazas who handles the odd modality of her music with all the aplomb one would expect of her- all of these serve to make the three hours (including interval) go by so quickly that we - and I include the children here - are hardly aware of the passage of time.
Great fun! And if one occasionally thinks "Weill!" or "Britten!" or "Sondheim!", so what? Dove absorbs his influences and makes them his own. This is a production well worthy of being revived time and time again, and, if this performance is anything to go by, will be instrumental in turning lots of youngsters into opera fans later in life!
Reviewer: Peter Lathan