Our theatre reviewer, Sam Sims, shares his thoughts on Pinocchio at Hull Truck Theatre.
Christmas can’t be here already can it? It seems like only yesterday I was drinking copious amounts of wine with my mum and gleefully beating my whole family at Monopoly. Yet here we are, another year almost gone. It’s not all painfully frosty mornings and pricey fancy lattes, though – Hull Truck’s latest Christmas show has arrived and it doesn’t disappoint.
The story of Pinocchio is one that many will be familiar with. A lonely, elderly man’s puppet magically comes to life, with chaos and adventure subsequently ensuing as it goes on a journey of discovery to find out what makes them ‘real’. With some Blue Whale ingestion for good measure.
Originally conceived in Italy by Carlo Collodi, The Adventures of Pinocchio first appeared in a 1881 children’s magazine, before being published as a book two years later. It has since been adapted several times, most famously by Walt Disney in 1940 and whilst its origins were far, far darker than we might be aware of (or comfortable with) – Pinocchio kills Jiminy Cricket after tiring of his lecturing and the original magazine series almost ended with the puppet being hanged – most versions have preferred to keep it a bit, err, lighter.
Hull Truck’s Pinocchio is decidedly for children, with its tone closer to Disney than depressing. Siân Thomas’s costumes are colourful and stimulating – a feast for all but especially the little ones. Standouts include The Blue Fairy’s – changed here to Blue Spirit – green cloak, sprinkled with glowing lights and tutu skirt, the whole cast in an abundance of Harlequin-style patchwork, and Dr Martens with mismatched laces.
This is true for all of the technical aspects of Pinocchio, with there always something to grab the attention of less mature eyes and even more crucially, to hold it. Everything, from Jessie Addinall’s lighting design which helps set the mood of the show as it takes many twists and turns, to Bronia Housman’s inventive set, really thrust you into the world that has been created here. I’m very impressed with Housman’s set pieces, in particular. It really does feel like they’ve thought long and hard about what truly sparks the imagination – with special attention paid to depth and the connection we have with popular culture. A forest of thorns overwhelms the rear of the stage, which very much reminded me of the one the Prince must fight through in Sleeping Beauty, and a hole in the centre of the stage used to hide gold coins is reminiscent of The Goonies.
The scene in which Pinocchio is lost at sea and ultimately swallowed by a big fish (not a whale as portrayed previously) is an absolute marvel, with everyone at the top of their game – lighting, Matthew Clowes’s sound, David Plumpton and Deb Pugh’s movement, Rory Davis and Sarah Feasey’s scene designs and especially the incredible puppets, made by John Barber and Liz Dees. Wowzer! And the way the whole auditorium is played out as the gut of the fish is wonderful.
You only have to see the effect the show has on kids in the audience – a very young child behind me mimicked Pinocchio every time they said “papa” and I caught some young girls singing and dancing manically out of the corner of my eye to the songs in the show – to know that Hull Truck is once again onto a winner with their latest Christmas production. The actors also have a lot to do with this. They’re all really great and especially Eliza Blair’s Pinocchio (lovely singing voice), Joanna Holden’s Cat (constantly includes the audience like she’s Panto-ing for her life) and Niall Ransome in an assortment of roles but especially as the naughty little boy turned into a donkey.
Whilst Pinocchio is, again, very much directed towards children, a fun time can still be had by the grownups and there’s much to appreciate. Hull Truck is getting a reputation for making its shows accessible and, as with last year’s A Christmas Carol, includes BSL whenever deaf actor, Fatima Niemogha, who plays Blue Spirit, is on stage. This shouldn’t seem like a remarkable, radical thing to do, but it still stands out when we see it – more of that please.
Ultimately, Hull Truck Theatre has once again given the city’s residents a perfectly lovely way to see in Christmas. Would I have preferred some more jokes aimed at the grownups? Yes, but perhaps that’s just a personal preference. Aside from this, the message of the show and the decision to make Pinocchio non-binary (because why was a wooden puppet ever male in the first place…?) gives you something to mull over on the way home.
I think a lot about what it means to be ‘real’ and to exist outside of society, whether that’s from the point of view of someone that belongs to the LGBTQ+ community or thinking about neurodiversity and often needing to ‘mask’ so you can fit in. Pinocchio, whether intentionally or not and not always explicitly, introduces such themes and really, they are applicable to everyone. As the show closes, we are told that being real is knowing you’re you, not about shape and size. Let’s all take those kind words into Christmas and apply them not only to others but to ourselves.
[Sam Sims – Theatre reviewer]