Pinocchio (Newbury Watermill)
There is something genuinely magical about the Newbury Watermill's latest seasonal show – a new musical version of "Pinocchio"
The magic starts from the moment rows of excited young theatregoers spot the blue-green and golden-lit solitary figure of old Geppetto the puppet maker, convincingly stranded Jonah-like in the belly of a large fish, thanks to Mark Dymock's spooky lighting and Rob Jones' atmospheric soundscape, underscored with Simon Slater's strings.
Geppetto is no slouch, though – he's built a whole in-belly theatre in which to tell the tale of his lost little wooden boy Pinocchio and Tomm Coles' warm and genuinely fatherly Geppetto immediately grabs the attention of audience members of all generations.
Robin Belfield and Simon Slater, responsible respectively for the direction and the original music, also wrote the script of this sparky, inventive and intelligent adaptation of Carlo Collodi's original stories (not the Disney film), that had all Italy enthralled back in the late 19th century.
These were moral tales and it was not just Pinocchio who had to learn to think of others, but Geppetto who had to learn to be a good father. There's an especially pleasing and rather sophisticated duet where father and wooden son regret the error of their ways.
Belfield and Slater have kept this serious core to the narrative and happily they have also kept the joyous, colourful Italian setting, all the more joyous and colourful for Karen McKeown's fun and endlessly inventive sets and costumes (I'd gladly make an offer for her piano bar!).
And taking no prisoners, they sometimes even have their cast chat in Italian (with translation - and the running rider that everything sounds better in Italian!). The programme actually offers parts of Pinocchio's body in Italian! And in case that sounds a bit too clever clever, there are lovely artfully familiar touches in the script, like Geppetto's oft repeated exclamation "Great spaghetti hoops!'
So when the mulit-talented cast of six actor/musicians (in true Watermill style) burst on to the village square with equally bright sunny brass and string accompaniment, they really do transport their Berkshire audience to the Tuscany of family holidays (later on there's a flight of fancy over places with names to savour like Siena and Poggibonsi!).
There's glorious slapstick here from Gabrielle Douglas's olive-seller swinging a yoke of olive baskets away from Jack Blumenau's winning, though almost fatally naughty and amoral Pinocchio.
Douglas makes not only a gorgeous - and almost terminally good - Blue Fairy (without ever suggesting wishing on a star!), but also a menacingly feisty farmer defending his crops and livestock from the marauding, villainous duo of Volpe the Fox and Gatto the Cat (I did say it would improve your Italian!).
Sarah Applewood's Volpe and Morgan Philpott's Gatto seize the chances the script gives them to be genuinely wicked (perhaps in both senses of the word), truly and gleefully unscrupulous in their pursuit and exploitation of Pinocchio and indeed any fellow truant from school.
It's left to Ian Harris's Cricket to provide the voice of conscience, though he's no milksop goody goody, but a nice assertive presence, who you might think Pinocchio would do well to heed. Of course, when he doesn't and tells a lie, his nose grows longer and here it does so in many terrific fun ways, including blowing up a long thin balloon.
Even those new to the story will guess that Pinocchio does finally see the error of his ways and there's really no need for a spoiler alert if I reveal that the schoolgirls and boys to whom I spoke afterwards loved this show as much as I did and that for most their favourite bit was when father Geppetto and prodigal son Pinocchio are reunited at the end - I actually had a tear in my eye!
Recommended for all ages – as a family show should be.
"Pinocchio" runs at the Watermill, Newbury until 5 January
– Judi Herman