Benito (Ben Cutler) and Geppetto (Rob Took) run the friendliest theatre company ever. They greet the audience and keep them entertained as they take their seats. But grief at being childless overwhelms Geppetto and he is unable to continue with the show. His partner suggests that the power of imagination and the magic of theatre might transform a puppet into a real son. The puppet’s name is Pinocchio.
In a rare piece of inspired typecasting the title role in the new production from the ‘Proper Job Theatre Company’ is played by a puppet. Pinocchio is manipulated by Katy-Anne Bellis and voiced with great empathy by Connor Beckwith. He is one of twelve ‘rising stars’ – young performers who contribute enormously to the success of the show acting as a chorus, filling in small roles and generally serving as a practical demonstration of the attitude of the company – that imagination, style and passion are of more value than finance when it comes to creating a festive show.
Director Chloe Whitehead is an imaginative storyteller whose techniques draw audible gasps from the young audience. The tale of the Heron is told using filmed images on multi-screens held by the cast. As ‘Pinocchio’ sinks under the sea the audience are delighted by bubbles filling the theatre and ‘fish’ swimming across the stage. Best of all is the 'rising stars' creating the effect of a massive sea monster live on stage.
At times, however, the lack of resources does have an impact and other aspects of the show are less successful. Although enormous care is taken to make Pinocchio lifelike Jiminy Cricket is a stiff two dimensional puppet. The director’s ambition, trying to cover as many of Carlo Collodi’s original tales as possible, may be laudable but exceeds the limited resources resulting a flat telling of some stories. The conclusion to Act One is very weak and the end of the actual show saved only by the cast leading us in a sing-along.
But in the crucial area of satisfying the target audience the show cannot be beat. Ben Cutler and Rob Took are selfless performers clowning around, turning somersaults and delighting the schoolchildren by blundering into the audience and embarrassing the teachers. In mark of the success of the show the children listen attentively, even silently, but have great fun when the time is right.
The age range of the audience is such that it is likely this may be the first time that some of them have been to a theatre. The quality of Pinocchio is high enough to make them want to repeat the experience.