Pinocchio at Hull Truck Theatre: Q&A with composer John Biddle and writer Mike Kenny

Hull Truck Theatre will soon welcome audiences – including families, schools and groups – to celebrate the festive season as they present their Christmas production of Pinocchio from Friday 24 November – Sunday 31 December.

Pinocchio has been re-imagined for audiences in 2023 and lovingly adapted by writer Mike Kenny (The Railway Children). Remaining loyal to the much-loved classic family favourite, originally written by Carlo Collodi in 1883, this action-packed production will see Pinocchio journeying on the adventure of a lifetime as they navigate the world and learn about what’s right and wrong, and importantly how to remain true to themselves along the way. With fantastically catchy original music by composer and co-lyricist John Biddle (A Christmas Carol, Peter Pan), this production is sure to be one that audiences will remember fondly for years to come.

Hull Truck Theatre caught up with the writer and composer of Pinocchio to find out what makes this production a “must see” for audiences this festive season.

Why should audiences, and especially young children, be excited about seeing Pinocchio at Hull Truck Theatre this festive season?

John: I think this is a beautiful story about identity and heart, but also with a load of silly, funny, naughty characters up its sleeve – I’ve really fallen in love with it working on it.

Mike: There are a few new twists and turns to give everyone a surprise. And, let’s face it, a story just isn’t a story without a few surprises. One thing about Pinocchio, which makes it particularly suitable for midwinter, like all good Christmas tales, is that it has some darkness at its heart, a lot of humour, a central character you really care about, and a spark of hope. And our version also has a lot of great songs!

How have you worked together to re imagine the classic family favourite? How is this story relevant in 2023?

John: We talked a lot, together with Mark (Artistic Director), about the massive sprawling story told in the book, and looked at different adaptations of it and which parts of the story they’d chosen to tell, before trying to choose ours. We found ourselves getting excited by the simple story of a young character desperately wanting to feel ‘real’, and it suddenly felt so in tune with what many young people experience now, especially forming their identities online – who am I, what defines me, what makes me real? I think there’s a lot in this story to help reassure people on all those questions.

This is not the first Christmas show composed or adapted by you both for Hull Truck Theatre. Will Pinocchio remind audiences of previous shows like A Christmas Carol and The Railway Children, or will this be different?

John:  I’m so happy to be back in Hull – I love the city and the audiences here, and I’d say the music in Pinocchio has elements of both those shows: a taste of traditional storytelling songs and some tender musical moments.

Mike: I personally set out on a journey of discovery every time. I never know how they will turn out. At the same time, the result will recognisably be a play by me. It’s the same way for anyone who is saying anything. You think mostly about what you are trying to say. The way it comes out is your voice. It will sound like you.

From the point of view of a writer, and for anyone currently writing their own adaptation, what is your top tip to creating an updated version while staying loyal to the original?

Mike: I’m a big believer in being as true as you can be to the original. If a book is any good, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth telling the story the original writer wrote. Having said that, sometimes you must make radical changes, in order to stick to the spirit of the original. Sometimes people have assumed that I have made big changes, when I’ve stuck very close to the original.

How does the music help make this version of Pinocchio different?

John: I think there’s two distinct sides to the songs: the world of this beautiful, small family unit of Gepetto and Pinocchio, with the music using lots of marimbas, so that it’s literally made of wood too; and then a bawdy, spit-and-sawdust sound of our band of storytellers, inspired by travelling circuses, who conjure the whole story for us. It’s a combination I haven’t seen before, and I love it! I think you must find each character’s sound. I start by reading their words and making up voices for them, the sillier and more different the better – just like I used to do when I was reading stories to my son. Then gradually the voices kind of bed in, and it can almost start to become obvious what kind of music the characters need.

Pinocchio learns many truths but one we are all familiar with is how they must believe in themselves and be true. Were there any stories that inspired you at a young age to believe in yourself and your dreams?

John: I really loved reading the Asterix books as a kid. I thought the best ones were where some clever, devious character comes to our heroes’ village and starts telling them lies, which then make Asterix and Obelix and the villagers stop loving and trusting each other.  Seeing them tricked into becoming less good versions of themselves was always upsetting, but you always knew they’d end up together, having a happy banquet on the last page!

Mike: I was a big reader when I was young. For a while I was obsessed with Enid Blyton, and the Famous Five. I loved them, but they didn’t inspire me. In fact, they made a council house kid like me think their life was all wrong. Why didn’t 39 College Rd have a secret tunnel? And why didn’t I have an Uncle who owned an island? The first book that really blew me away was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I found it mind expanding. I’m not sure I even understood it, but I seemed to be in the presence of important stuff, that one day I would be able to grasp. It inspired me to write my own stories.

What is your favourite memory of Christmas from years gone by?

Mike: I love Christmas. It’s a big deal in our household. When I look back to being a child, the thing I remember the most is waking up in the dark, and crawling to the bottom of my bed to find my stocking, which would invariably have a tangerine in the toe, sometimes a toy, but the best thing was a torch. It was probably only once, but in my memory, it was every year.

Does the show Pinocchio make you excited for Christmas?

John: Like loads of people, my first time going to a theatre was to watch the panto at Christmas, and it’s a small thing, but I used to absolutely love the moment the lights started to go dark, and you knew it was starting – something about all that potential and excitement in the room. I think pantomimes are an amazing part of our country’s tradition, and I hope that in making our family Christmas shows, we’re still combining all the best theatre tricks from the pantos into what we’re doing.

Tickets for Pinocchio are now on-sale and available to buy online and via Hull Truck Theatre’s Box Office. Recommended age guidance is 7+ and group booking discounts of 10% are available for parties of 8+. For more information, please visit: