Pinocchio at the Unicorn Theatre review: wonderfully imaginative and mercifully no donkeys

Susan Harrison, Peyvand Sadeghian, Eleanor Wyld and Tom Kanji (Ellie Kurttz)
Susan Harrison, Peyvand Sadeghian, Eleanor Wyld and Tom Kanji (Ellie Kurttz)

I’ve never liked Pinocchio – back in the days when children’s films had to include at least one scene specifically designed to scar children for life, Disney’s Pinocchio particularly excelled in this respect. Yes, I’m talking about the infamous sequence in the otherwise sweet story where Pinocchio is conned into going to ‘Pleasure Island’, a disturbing fairground where children can run wild, which turns out to be merely a front for a child trafficking ring which turns children into donkeys then sells them to salt mines.

Thankfully, for my sake as much as my children’s, there are no Cronenberg-esque donkey transformations or child trafficking in this Unicorn Theatre adaptation. Instead, we have a cat, a fairy, lots of wonderfully imaginative staging and ok, one nerve-racking bit involving a dogfish that did have my daughter diving under my arm.

But of course we’re in good hands here at the Unicorn, the biggest children’s theatre in the country, who don’t know how to do bad productions – this is their big Christmas show, adapted by Eve Leigh. Peyvand Sadeghian plays the toy carved out of wood who comes to life after his lonely maker Gepetto (Tom Kanji) wishes for a child and a blue fairy sorts him out. If Pinocchio can steer clear of the lies that send his proboscis soaring, and listen to his conscience (here, a mosquito that starts buzzing around) he will become a real boy by the next full moon.

Susan Harrison (Ellie Kurttz)
Susan Harrison (Ellie Kurttz)

I went with my seven year old daughter and ten year old son, and both were very engaged by the whole thing – there’s all the gags and sad moments and songs and a bit of lunacy to keep things going at the pace required for primary school kids. Many of the laughs and engagement with the audience come from Marmalade the cat, played by Susan Harrison, as well as Eleanor Wyld and Sam Pay in multiple roles.

Kanji also has fun in his other role as the toy seller Fratello, who in one nice moment prostrates himself before a queen so completely he starts swimming across the floor. “You can tell the actors like doing it,” commented my son, sagely.

Sadeghian is a whirl of energy and empathy in a carefully presented production which is at pains to point out that telling the truth does not always mean simply “being obedient”, and about parental “control”. Instead telling the truth is a path towards showing people the real you. This proved to be a very lovely thread, so simple that even the parents could get it.

The verdict from my children afterwards: “It felt magical” (my daughter), and, “A funny and heartfelt adventure” (my son, making a big play to get on the poster). My own verdict: “No donkeys. Four stars”.

Unicorn Theatre, to December 31;