Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Pinocchio: the Greatest Wonder of the Age (Lyric Theatre until 31 December)

Paul Boyd doesn’t recap a Disney film when he’s writing a Christmas show. He aims higher and returns to the original story to find inspiration for his retelling of this classic tale.

So his version of Pinocchio is far from being all about a wooden boy with an elongating nose. Instead, he has created a much more nuanced musical tale that portrays coercive control, belittlement, fixed mindsets, taking back control, finding what makes you special, wrestling with the truth … and the nose that betrays untruths.

Roll up, roll up, it’s Pinocchio: the Greatest Wonder of the Age, on stage in the Lyric Theatre until 31 December.

A cast of animal-inspired acts fill Collodi’s Circus. There’s a lobster, a cricket, a cat and a fox. With Collodi no longer at the helm, the circus is being run by Swallowfire, an ambitious and somewhat domineering ringmistress. “My circus, my rules” she demands. Laid up under the Tree of Truth, plans are made to reopen the big top. The parallels between the dormant circus and the local theatre scene that spent many months dark during the pandemic are obvious.

A local carpenter creates a sure-fire attraction from a fallen branch: a wooden boy. While the Blue Fairy promises him the chance to secede from the tree and become human, he must first deal with Swallowfire’s disappointment and her need for a show that packs in the punters.

The costumes created by Gillian Lennox and Erin Charteris are gorgeous, with masses of vaudeville detailing and rich textures. Stuart Marshall’s set places each performer’s caravan in an arc around the circus ring, and flies in a big top to complete the scene for Swallowfire’s shows.

Michael Mahony brings the circus caretaker Mr Keys to life as a minstrel, strumming a guitar and narrating key moments of the plot. He’s joined by Christopher Finn on the accordion. Finn also expertly manipulates the four-foot-high puppet of Pinocchio, and injects warmth and emotion into the little boy’s songs.

Alison Harding is stern and controlling as Swallowfire, stopping well short of becoming a cartoon villain: there’s no temptation to boo. Christina Nelson is the tightrope walking cat, full of jest and often in cahoots with Mr Fox (played by Paul Boyd who was temporarily understudying the role for Richard Clements at the performance I attended).

Boyd’s musical overture slowly settles the chittering audience before the opening number Days Gone By sets the tone for the rest of the show. While each cast member’s musicality is established quickly, the two strongest voices come from Richard Russell Edwards who dons his fishnet tights and reaches impressive operatic high notes as the Italian Red Lobster (complete with a great gag about altos) while Lyric Theatre Drama Studio alumna Eimear Fearon creates some of the show’s most magical moments with her beautiful voice behind two rather fun characters, the Talking Cricket and the Blue Fairy.

It feels like there’s less singing and more talking than Boyd’s previous festive productions, and some the dialogue-heavy sections of Pinocchio seemed to slow the pace and dampened the sense of spectacle and magic. Pandemic precautions may have robbed the production of tactility – there’s none of the physical tussle you’d expect in a story that sets up conflict between its characters – but the audience becomes more involved after the interval which helps boost the show’s energy levels, and Hear Me Shout is a tremendous finale.

It's a high-quality production, there’s plenty to entertain, and while the story is a tad unfamiliar and quite serious in places, we should never underestimate the comprehension of children and their ability to tune in to the on stage emotion and enjoy the spectacle.

Pinocchio: the Greatest Wonder of the Age continues at the Lyric Theatre until 31 December

Photo credit: Carrie Davenport

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