‘Pinocchio’ on Stage: The Best Puppet Show Since ‘War Horse’

Can a Disney classic keep pace with a golden era of children’s theatrical masterpieces?

Manuel Harlan

LONDON—Seventy-seven years after Pinocchio was first projected onto the big screen, he’s finally got his wish: He gets to be a real boy.

A spectacular stage version of the classic animation has arrived in London with breathtaking visual effects that are surely destined for Broadway and a world tour. In a production masterstroke, a real boy has been cast as Pinocchio while his father Geppetto and the other grown-ups are portrayed by 15-foot puppets.

By flipping which characters are played by puppets the audience is placed on the same scale as Pinocchio, while the looming marionettes—including a vast whale that takes over the whole stage—represent the intimidating world of adulthood.

The towering puppets of Pinocchio’s “father” Geppetto, wicked Stromboli and the Coachman are operated in the style of War Horse, where the puppeteers are visible and part of the show—working in conjunction with the actors who are voicing the characters.

The National Theatre has assembled a British theatre supergroup to put this show together with the director from the record-breaking Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, the writer from the Matilda The Musical stage adaptation, and music and puppetry from veterans of War Horse which opened at the National a decade ago.

All three of those blockbuster shows secured Broadway transfers after sell-out runs in London, which is fast becoming the proving ground for the best modern children’s stage shows.

This show can’t quite serve up the raw emotion of War Horse nor the inventiveness and wit of those two modern masterpieces but it remains a triumphant interpretation of the 1940 Disney classic.

Ultimately it proved impossible to retrofit Pinocchio with the sense of irreverence and humor that was abundant in Matilda—when writer Dennis Kelly was working with source material by the loveable, twisted Roald Dahl—or The Cursed Child where John Tiffany had entirely fresh writing to explore.

The National said they had retained complete creative control of the show despite securing the official sign off from Disney for use of the classic fairy tale, but for the most part they have stuck with the spirit as well as the songs of the original.

This is exactly the story you remember of an impressionable wooden puppet whose nose grows when he tells a lie.

There is a welcome attempt to inject some additional levity into the show—including a series of gags that bring us into the world of the theater, building on the scene when Pinocchio is tricked into joining a traveling show. In this adaptation, Pinocchio’s quest to become a real boy is seen through the prism of discovering the one thing that makes humans human. Is it fame, pleasure, money or pain?

The fox—a captivatingly arch conman played by David Langham—tells him: “Only famous people matter… and no one has more humanity than an actor.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

“Just ask any actor!”

One of the most obvious updates to the show was transforming Jiminy Cricket—Pinocchio’s side-kick—into a woman, or at least a female insect. “Her? But she’s so annoying!” moans Pinocchio when the Blue Fairy introduces them. “Of course— she’s your conscience,” the fairy replies.

Perhaps it wasn’t necessary to make this feminine incarnation an angsty germophobe with a gluten intolerance but the stand out performance by Audrey Brisson generates plenty of laughs.

It’s the character of Pinocchio himself that causes more problems. When Walt Disney oversaw the story’s adaptation from the original 1880s fiction, he insisted on making the puppet more likeable. The animators were arguably more successful in that quest than Joe Idris-Roberts who is perfectly competent and athletic in the role here but he never sweeps the audience off their feet.

When Pinocchio is sold to Stromboli as a stage act, the wicked puppet master is not impressed by his performance: “Now, how can I put this?” he asks. “You are somewhat wooden!”

The same could be said—not just for Idris-Roberts—but the whole first half of the show.

The sets, the props and the puppets are magnificent from the outset but the human drama and the humor only really hit their stride in the second half.

When Pinocchio is transported to the dystopian Pleasure Island, the excellent chorus comes to the fore injecting more energy into the show—as well as plenty of fart jokes and slapstick that went down well with the members of the audience who were out past their bedtimes.

Ironically for a show about a puppet with no strings, some of the most glorious stagecraft was the wire-work which was reminiscent of the stunning underwater scenes from The Cursed Child.

Despite the flawless production, this classic story can’t help feeling a little dated, straight and sincere compared to its more irreverent, raucous modern competitors. It’s a tale about a liar that’s a bit too honest.

Pinocchio is at the National Theatre, London SE1 until April 10. Book tickets here.