Disney’s cheeky wooden puppet with a yearning to be a human boy might be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Pinocchio.
Like all animation re-imaginings that become childhood and cultural icons, it becomes too easy to forget about the source material buried underneath their popularised adaptations.
Little Eggs Collective and The Clari Boys’ modern eponymous production digs up these very roots, drawing on the Italian origins of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio and rejuvenating this traditional story into a spellbinding pantomime of choreographed movement and free-flowing music.
Julia Robertson’s painstaking direction of this concise show is sweet and tasteful in equal measure, expertly crafted in its innovative vision.
Playing in an abandoned open warehouse space in Alexandria, the simple set, boxed in by audience members, is contrastingly intimate.
The primary set piece, a wooden table creatively utilised as an array of objects, becomes the centrepiece for Pinocchio’s creator Geppetto (played by a dynamically Charlie Chaplin-like Mathew Lee), whose own imagination manifests itself through a playful concoction of sounds and characters.
There’s no words spoken. Instead, Pinocchio relies on mischievous audible interplay and physicality. There’s giggly laughter and clarinets played for silly sound effects. Reactions are vocally exaggerated and operatically sung.
The other performers move and around Geppetto in an impeccably sophisticated display of ensemble work. In some moments, they entangle themselves as one, moving in breathtaking unison; in others, they show off their distinctive musical talents.
Clarinettists Max Harris and Oliver Shermacher nail their difficult, exquisite runs, and Annie Stafford, Grace Samnas, Laura Wilson sing in haunting acapella harmony.
Georgia Britt’s choreography stands out for its melding of contemporary dance against finer details of basic movement.
The darker, grim ideas that protrude through this artistic pantomime threaten to take away any sort of comical relief, where the context of Mussolini’s fascist reign in mid-20th century Italy slowly infiltrates Geppetto’s fantastical headspace.
Lighting design by Nick Fry is effective in transitioning warmer colours to colder, greyer ones, depicting a shift in its protagonist’s world where conformity becomes the norm and harrowing violence can’t be escaped.
While meaning is sometimes lost in smaller scenes of repetitive chanting and interpretation is left too widely open for its audience to decipher, the general significance of Geppetto’s devolution into a ‘puppet’ of his country’s scheme is still strikingly felt.
Robertson’s production doesn’t really function as an origin story. But the hook may not be such a bad thing if it means this magical albeit bleak show will attract an audience.
Flourishes when it embraces its own idiosyncrasies, Pinocchio‘s high standard of performance, alongside its fresh, intuitive staging, makes this production a delight to watch.