Torch Theatre Company return for their 38th Pantomime season with the classic story of Pinocchio. Written by Artistic Director Peter Doran and directed by James Williams, Pinocchio becomes a magical journey with much more to offer than the average Christmas pantomime. There are stunning sets and beautiful costumes, familiar characters with an added twist and original music, with multiple chances to join in with the interactive show. There is also a sense of a clear move away from the traditional pantomime elements, such as the pantomime dame, slapstick humour and various innuendos. The fun and silliness is there, the magical moments in the shape of the blue fairy (Jodie Micchiche) but there is also a darker element to the show. It has heart and depth, appealing to a modern audience, who have perhaps come to expect something different.
The choice of Pinocchio is an interesting one. It offers the opportunity to explore and develop Carlo Collodi’s tale of the Italian puppet maker who brings his puppet to life with the help of a mystery gypsy woman. The cautionary tale of being kind, good and truthful, or facing the consequences. Doran keeps close to Collodi’s much loved story, omitting the original and much darker fate of the puppet who becomes a real boy. 200 plus school children, who may have only been familiar with Disney’s film version, appeared to love it, instinctively knowing when to cheer and boo at the characters on stage. Even in the darker elements, they appeared engrossed in the action, absorbed by the atmospheric sound and lighting (Ceri James) and the use of images on-screen to narrate events, while allowing for the many costume changes.
The set, designed by Torch regular Sean Crowley and built by Sam Wordsworth, is extremely effective. Gepetto’s house and workshop is a small wooden hut alongside the water, complete with wooden walkways either side. The wooden exterior of the house revolves 180 degrees to reveal the interior, complete with Geppetto’s puppets and work tools. In the background a large moon hangs over the house, the back screen depicting a summer sky.
We later see a stand alone 3D portrait outline of a Theatre stage complete with footlights, for the scene where Pinocchio and Lampwick visit the Theatre for a famous puppet show. Real hand-made puppets are used throughout the scene and operated by the actors, giving a nice authenticity to the show.
Later, using clever projection onto the walls, the stage becomes the inside of a Shark. Gepetto’s little boat on a ledge in centre of the stage, a small candle illuminating his anxious face. There are also some impressive technical elements to the production, including actors flying through the air on wires, hand-operated birds on a wire – a modern theatre technique used often in bigger productions – and varied lighting effects as well as a range of music (also by James Williams) to set the scene.
The cast of 6 work incredibly well together. Led by director James Williams, they move around the stage, energised and enthusiastic in their multiple roles. There are several new faces, alongside Torch regular Dion Davies and Will Taylor, who made a commendable Torch debut as Billy Bibbit in last year’s 40th anniversary production of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Jodie Micciche has a beautiful voice. She is first on stage, alongside Will Taylor (as a young Geppetto), to narrate the background to the tale, the sad loss of Geppetto’s wife. She then plays the Gypsy lady and Blue Fairy who assists Pinocchio in receiving his heart and becoming a real boy. Micciche has a magnetism about her which draws the audience in, as she glides across stage, in a princess style costume, with long blue hair, carrying a basket of flowers. Her soft Italian accent is pleasant to listen to, and we warm to her as she stays by Pinocchio’s side throughout his journey.
Dudley Rogers impresses in multiple roles. Notably as the elderly Geppetto, who finds himself alone after the death of his wife, and longing for company. Rogers Geppetto is softly spoken and walks with a stoop, when he meets the gypsy lady he is unsure, yet encouraged by her words. When his beloved wooden puppet Pinocchio comes to life, we see the love and kindness he offers him and the worry the situation causes him.
Will Taylor, last seen at the Torch in his role in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s nest, plays Pinocchio. We first see him perched on a wooden bench in Geppetto’s workshop, covered in an old dust sheet. Then, suddenly he is alive, his movements stiff and jolted as, much to the audiences delight, he begs for oil. Taylor plays Pinocchio with great heart and enthusiasm. His longing to learn and to go to school, his hunger that Geppetto strains to provide for. There is also a childlike innocence to Taylor’s Pinocchio, as he meets Lampwick, (played delightfully by Kayed Mohamed-Mason), who encourages him to skip school and come on an adventure with him, which ultimately leads to trouble.
Mohamed-Mason also plays the Torch’s reincarnation of Disney’s Jimny Cricket. Italian speaking and beautifully dressed, (Praise to Helen Rodgers for her incredible costumes) he warns Pinocchio of his enemies Freddy the fox and Felina the cat. He later appears through the trap door as the ‘ghost of crickets past’ – one of a few nice references to Dickens – cheerfully sipping an espresso while attempting to warn Pinocchio of his enemies plot to overthrow him.
A Torch pantomime wouldn’t be the same without Dion Davies. Traditionally the pantomime dame, in this production he plays Freddy Fox. Dressed head to toe in a striking orange and brown suit, and walking with a stick, he appears like one of the Victorian gentry. Yet his attempts to trick Geppetto into giving up Pinocchio, by posing as a beggar, then as someone with links to the Theatre,
are soon revealed. Emma Hirons is the cat (Felina) to Dion’s fox and the chemistry between them is great. Hirons is hilarious in her feline role, sneaking across the stage, arms constantly moving, paw like, through the air, her voice screeching in response to her master, abandoning the plan as soon as she smells fish. Her costume goes beyond the traditional animal role. Layered with materials and topped with beautiful grey fur.
Her star moment comes when she decides that she’s had enough of being mistreated and forgotten, and turns on Fox with a giant fish. Davies and Hiron are great comic actors and this shows in their performance. Their song, which includes the lines ‘I’m feeling Foxy’ and ‘I’m the cat’s meow’ is great fun and the kids loved it.
The second half of the production turns considerably darker, as we see Pinocchio run off to Toy Town, with the encouragement of the naughty lampwick. As Victorian fairground music plays, the dark stage lightens to reveal Rogers (as Raveneli, the modern coachman) dressed in black, waving gloved hands that appear to elongate his fingers. As he sings ‘welcome to toy town’ we look around to see the set is a collection of carnival cut outs, at the side of the stage a giant clown face has fallen on its side and appears deformed. A helterskelter on the back screen frames the scene perfectly. The atmosphere in the auditorium certainly changed at this point. Rogers impressed in this role, really creating the feel of a Victorian child catcher. The blue fairy, floated from the side stage, with an old-fashioned camera to take Pinocchio’s picture. Lampwick is there too but seems in a daze. As the light flashes and sparks fly, both boys realise all is not what it seems.
What follows is certainly unsettling. These scenes took the production into something beyond pantomime. Although true to the origins of the story, they took the Torch Theatre’s production into pure dark and thrilling Theatre. It also allowed for the team to explore and experiment with different visual techniques and the actors with character depths.
The Torch Theatre always strive for something different, to push boundaries and not shy away from darker topics and they’ve definitely accomplished that. The audience, aside from one single child, seemed to love it. The visual spectacles, the colourful costumes and set designs, the music and dancing, the fabulous actors and silly jokes. Even the dark elements of the story. The weird and wonderful.
The Torch Theatre have managed to produce another winning pantomime with an original story choice, outstanding set and costume design and a deeply funny, magical and moving production which gives credit to a talented creative and technical team.
Pinocchio runs public performances from 20th December until 30th December, not including Christmas Day and Boxing Day.