Wednesday, August 5, 2015

'Pinocchio' in St Paul's Churchyard, 3rd August 2015

We begin by following a small white coffin into the churchyard. Inside is a dead boy - Geppetto's son Peppino. We listen as the grief stricken toymaker outlines a plague sweeping the land - a plague that took his beloved son. It's a hell of a way to start a child-orientated summer production of Pinocchio. 

With this opening, Iris Theatre is making a statement of intent. This isn't your fluffy, super-saccharine Disneyfied Pinocchio, it's unearthing the slightly sadistic roots of Carlo Collodi's original. Here, a naive, impressionable boy is assailed from all sides by sin, dragged ever further down into the quicksand of evil as he desperately struggles to be a 'good boy'.

At times this is a world of assassins, bullies and abusive teachers, where angry men will brandish knives at you, slavers will stamp on friendly snails and where cat's paws can be bitten clean off. The moral of the story (and one with which I'm sure Collodi would concur) is that children should be terrified into behaving, shown the worst possible consequences of not respecting your parents, playing truant and generally being a lackadaisical brat.

Happily, though Iris Theatre's Pinocchio has dark shadows, there's also bright, sunny humour. Blessed with a talented cast, the show is jampacked with moments of surreal brilliance. Only someone completely humourless could have kept themselves from giggling as a man dressed as a giant crab scuttled up and down the aisles, as a ditzy cat-lady sang about her love for fish, or an ridiculously stern schoolmaster picked on the audience. 

This heightened reality extends into the excellent sets by Amber Scarlett. Dotted around the churchyard, they're all evocatively hand-crafted, usually literally bearing the fingerprints of the artist. These straddle a neat line between professional and amateur, almost as if they're something an extremely talented child might be able to make themselves. That's not a criticism in the slightest, more that it allows the children in the audience to identify that much more readily with what's in front of them.

In a show aimed at children there's one simple test to see whether it's a success. If they're misbehaving and restless you've failed, if they're quiet and focussed you've succeeded. Pinocchio manages this with aplomb; the young audience giggles at the gags, sits in quiet nervousness at the scary bits but is always utterly wrapped up in the universe of the imagination Iris Theatre have created in the churchyard.

Fortunately it's also an enjoyable experience for adults too. The comedic tone is pitched so absurdly that these jokes can't fail to raise a smile. Each cast member boasts an impressively expressionist face, which underlines each precisely enunciated line of dialogue with playful mischievousness. Adults will also appreciate the shifts in tone and atmosphere over the course of the evening - this is an adventurous play spanning oceans, beaches, cities and countryside - by the time the enormously impressive finale kicks off we feel as if we've been on an epic journey.

Perhaps a little too epic. Fun as this is, there comes a point where you wonder just when this damn leviathan is going to show up and kick off the final act. The picaresque narrative occasionally feels a bit like wheel-spinning, I can't help but feel a bit of minor trimming would make the emotional component of Pinocchio's tale a bit more immediate. 

Also, I can imagine this being a pretty miserable experience if the weather took a turn for the worse. The vast majority of the show is outside, there's not much shelter and the actors look like they'd have a pretty miserable time if drenched in rain. That said, I'm sure they've got some contingency for this.

Pinocchio is the kind of show you'd want your children to see. It's optimistic, funny, stylistically bold and produced from a bedrock of intense creativity. This is the antithesis to the commercialised, big budget West End; a show with purity of purpose.


Pinocchio is at St Paul's Churchyard, Covent Garden until 29 August. Tickets here.

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