Once upon a time there was a woodcarver who made a puppet. That’s right – it’s the story of Pinocchio, the little pinecone. Pat Whymark and Julian Harries have taken the essence of Collodi’s classic 19th century tale and given it an extra dimension by paralleling it with the tale of a family of acrobats, one of whom is soured through injury and another is neglecting to practice and prefers to live it up with a fast crowd and “borrowed” money.
Just as Pinocchio has to learn through experience not to lie, not to be selfish and not to be greedy, so young Pietro has to realise that his wilfulness cripples his whole family just as much as himself when he tumbles from the trapeze. The two stories mesh well together and keep the audience involved with the way that they sometimes overlap and sometimes diverge.
The settings and costumes suggest the period of the story and the type of makeshift travelling production which one sees in paintings and prints of the time. Four out of the cast of five play many parts with Joseph Reed, carrot-mop haired and flexible limbed, making an athletic and credible boy who needs to grow-up fast in both his guises.
Boss of the Calzoni troupe and manipulating puppeteer (in both sense of the word) is Harries, fondling a bad-tempered owl as the villain in a Bond movie might caress a cat. Tracy Elster plays Pietro’s rather-too-clinging mother Serafina, the fairy who guides Pinocchio and (among others) the cat who joins forces with the fox to trick Pinocchio.
Pietro’s disliked cousin Salvatore (Josh Overton) transforms into the liveliest of crickets and the actual and surrogate fathers are played by Stefan Atkinson. The animal costumes are imaginative and I particularly enjoyed the Scottish goats. It’s not laboured, but there’s a certain amount of theatre history quietly on display as well as an object lesson in what you can do with a few stools, a couple of screens and a table.
There’s an effective scene where Pinocchio finds himself one of a collection of commedia dell’arte puppets, including Columbine, Harlequin and Pulcinella. Whymark’s score is tuneful and incorporates some good sound effects; it was a relief to hear natural voices without amplification. Accordion and guitar with percussion provide the main instrumental accompaniment and almost become characters in their own right.
A slightly faster tempo for the initial exchanges within the family would help this part of the plot to make a sharper impact ,but you know that an audience is listening intently and following the action closely when it really can’t be bothered to hiss and boo, even when encouraged to do so.