Lyttelton stage, National Theatre Until Apr 10 2hrs 30mins
This is not the stage version of the fabulous 1940 Disney film, nor is it a children’s show with singalongs.
It is advertised for ‘brave eight-year-olds and above’, and though it lacks the vintage Disney magic, it has five of the film’s songs, including When You Wish Upon A Star and I’ve Got No Strings.
Visually, the National’s creative team (this is staged by the Harry Potter play director John Tiffany) has thrown everything at this.
In the National’s stage take on the fabulous 1940 Disney film, Geppetto is a 12ft-tall puppet while the boy he carves is a flesh-and-blood actor (Joe Idris-Roberts, above centre)
Like the Blue Fairy, who is heralded by a wonderful flaming comet, the widower Geppetto is a 12ft-tall puppet. The boy he carves is a flesh-and-blood actor (Joe Idris-Roberts).
But the puppetry wonderment soon dissipates. Pinocchio’s green friend Jiminy Cricket has been gender-reassigned, and after the 27th time she tells us she is Pinocchio’s conscience, I itched to spray her with something deadly.
The story’s cautionary parable about the dangers of lying is here downplayed, presumably to avoid inducing guilt in any little fibbers watching. Pinocchio’s nose extends at one point but the theme is basically junked.
But the puppetry wonderment soon dissipates and while there’s lots to look at, this scores low in the family-outing stakes (David Langham as The Fox with Idris-Roberts, above)
Other giant puppets include the circus impresario Stromboli and a sinister coachman.
But with their unmoving mouths they become a bit dull, drawing our attention to the sweating handlers below, furiously pushing rods to keep them upright.
IT’S A FACT
Walt Disney ditched 2,300ft of footage during filming of the 1940 cartoon – five months’ work – ‘because it missed the feeling he had in mind’.
The Pleasure Island sequence, where children are recycled into donkeys, is such a long haul that writer Dennis Kelly resorts to fart jokes.
By the time the action had washed up inside the giant whale Monstro, I’d lost patience.
Missing is a coherent, take-home experience of a loved but errant puppet in which children can see their own struggles.
There’s lots to look at, but this scores low in the family-outing stakes. Shortly into the second half, a boy two seats along from me asked his mother: ‘Can we go home now?’ I know how he felt.
Guys And Dolls
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester Until Feb 3 2hrs 30mins
This version of Frank Loesser’s 1950 New York-set musical is all-black and relocated from Broadway to the city’s Harlem district. It’s such a good idea, you wonder why it hasn’t been done before.
If the sparse designs don’t have much sense of place, these low-life crap-shooters certainly feel right.
Ray Fearon’s seasoned Nathan Detroit has been engaged to Miss Adelaide (superbly played on the night I went by Chelsey Emery) so long she has invented their fictional kids.
This version of Frank Loesser’s 1950 New York-set musical is all-black and relocated from Broadway to Harlem. It’s such a good idea, you wonder why it hasn’t been done before
Ashley Zhangazha is fully credible as a natty Sky Masterson, who whisks the starchy Save-a-Soul mission sister Sarah on a date to Havana for a bet.
Staged in bright suits, Michael Buffong’s cartoon-like vision for the show has choreography by Kenrick Sandy (of hip-hop dance company Boy Blue) that gives full swing to Luck Be A Lady and the hot gospel number Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat.
Great score, great fun. No wonder the run has been extended.
George’s Marvellous Medicine 1hr 30mins
Curve, Leicester Until Jan 20, then on tour until Apr 21
David Wood’s expert adaptations of Roald Dahl’s books for the stage go back 40 years. This one comes with a typically Dahl-ish blend of comedy, malice and theatrical vitality.
Preston Nyman plays the engaging young George on a Heath Robinson-like farmyard run on pedal power and wind. His life goes rapidly downhill when his far from gloriumptious granny arrives to stay on her mobility scooter.
She’s a blinged-up Northerner – played with brassy, gin-sodden relish by Lisa Howard (Emmerdale’s Grace Sheehan) – and the most demanding, unpleasant granny on the planet.
David Wood’s entertaining adaptation features (clockwise from top left): Justin Wilman as Dad, Preston Nyman as George, Lisa Howard as Granny and Catherine Morris as Mum
George’s escape from his slavery to her every whim involves a magic household potion – its gleeful concoction is a delicious scene – that both expands and shrinks the old witch.
Julia Thomas’s cast features a giant chicken (a clucking Chandni Mistry), Catherine Morris as George’s mum and an ensemble of instruments played by Justin Wilman’s distracted Dad.
The show thoroughly entertained me and 200 under-tens who shrieked their approval.
Hampstead Theatre, London Until Jan 20 2hrs 25mins
Why is it that playwrights always go gooey about traitors? Simon Gray’s play tells the story of MI6 agent George Blake, sentenced to 42 years for working as a mole for the Soviets.
He escaped Wormwood Scrubs in 1966 with the help of a petty Irish crook, Sean Bourke, and made it to Moscow.
The play was a front-page sensation in 1995 when Stephen Fry did a spectacular bunk from the West End run; it never recovered and closed soon after.
In this well-acted revival of Simon Gray’s verbose play, Geoffrey Streatfeild plays MI6 traitor George Blake, who cruelly manipulates the harmless Sean Bourke (Emmet Byrne, both above)
In this well-acted revival, directed by Ed Hall, Geoffrey Streatfeild plays the prim Blake, cruelly manipulating the harmless Bourke (Emmet Byrne), who has come to stay in his plush Moscow flat, plunging the Irishman deeper into loneliness and alcoholism.
Their relationship is observed by two glumly droll KGB officers and a singing housemaid.
Gray gives us a verbose study in human isolation but he utterly ignores the blood trail. The real Blake, now ancient and still living in Moscow, has no remorse for the dozens of agents he sent to their deaths.
The play makes light of his treachery and manages to be dull and sentimental too.
The Little Matchgirl And Other Happier Tales 2hrs
Bristol Old Vic Until Jan 14, then on tour until Apr 21
In this Shakespeare’s Globe and Bristol Old Vic adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic, the Little Matchgirl is played by a puppet, a desperately sad little thing in a freezing world.
Every time she lights a match, a storyteller starts up a fairy tale.
The three stories (adapted by Joel Horwood) are Thumbelina, who ends up in a makeshift ‘Jungle’-like city; The Princess And The Pea (the spoilt cow sleeps on more mattresses than you’d find in a student bedsit), and The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which two German fashion-designer frauds – Katy Owen and Guy Hughes, both ridiculous – show his highness (Niall Ashdown, also very funny) their latest creation, made of dolphin spit.
In this adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic, the Little Matchgirl is played by a puppet (above with Niall Ashdown), a desperately sad little thing in a freezing world
Emma Rice directs in her signature vaudeville style with busking musicians on stage and a tone of lively home-made theatre prevails.
But it all gets cumulatively political and depressing. The current refugee crisis is rammed home in the final minutes as the Matchgirl meets her freezing fate in a horrible street incident.
You can forget about walking out on a guilt-free high. Inventive and seasonal, yes, but escapist it’s not.