MY SON PINOCCHIO JR Southwark Playhouse, London
Geppetto and Pinocchio (James Sampson and Ethan Quinn): photo Eliza Wilton

Their second annual summer season takeover at London's Southwark Playhouse 2019 sees the British Theatre Academy's youth production of Disney's My Son Pinocchio JR written by Stephen Schwartz & David Stern, directed by Séimí Campbell and performed entirely by a junior cast comprising both children and young adults.
 
My Son Pinocchio JR  retells the classic and much loved Disney cartoon story but with a spin. This time there is a shift to a focus on toymaker Geppetto. Featuring those beloved classic songs 'When You Wish Upon A Star and I've Got No Strings' (Leigh Harline/Ned Washington) alongside a host of new and exciting songs by Oscar/Grammy award winner, Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell), this production tackles issues about the pressures of being 'the perfect child' and what it means to be a 'real father'.

 Having been granted his wish by the Blue Fairy for a son, Geppetto is discontented with his little wooden puppet Pinocchio, believing him to be difficult and unable to follow instruction. Complaining to the Blue Fairy, who declares herself perfect and is far more feisty than her cartoon counterpart, and with the aid of four delightful trainee fairies, Geppetto is taken back in time to discover where things went awry. On his journey of realization he learns the meaning of family and of being a father, both of which resonated soundly with the adults in the audience.

The stage is filled with brightly primary coloured toy cubes, reflective of those in a children's nursery and sets the tone of this production. There is an innocence but this is deceiving. The staging has been carefully considered. The children are able to move the blocks around to allow for variance of scene and, together with the onstage Narnia type wardrobe to allow for effective costume changes, this is a slick production.

Costumes are likewise brightly coloured, with a funky blue netting skirt worn by the punkish Blue Fairy to the cool street garb of the trainee fairies whose trainers literally sparkle. And let's not forget the Boo Hiss adults whose nastiness is captured through their stooped shaping, shrill and thunderous voices and wearing of masks. Just as in the many musicals of today (think Annie, Matilda) the adults are selfish rotters and it is a wonder that the children can cope.
   
Geppetto has in the past seen many families at his toy shop. True, the children were often precocious and willful but Geppetto was more scathing of the parents, who regarded their offspring as pests. 'Why is it the ones who see children as bothers/Are the ones who get to be fathers?' In his sorrow and frustration, Geppetto believes that if ever he gets the chance to be a father he would behave with more compassion, patience and understanding. But he soon learns that parenting is not quite as he thought.

Children have enquiring minds and are eager to learn. They are like sponges who seek new experiences and soak them up in their development. With endless questions their energy never wanes and despite his good intentions, Geppetto is irritated and snaps at his little wooden son who has a bottomless depth of curiosity. Just like those parents he so criticized, he is short tempered. Overhearing his 'father' complain to the Blue Fairy, the little wooden puppet with the itchy nose (slight change from the cartoon depiction) is deeply saddened and runs away. 

In his anguish and despair, Geppetto will stop at nothing to protect Pinocchio against the cruely of his encounters in the exploitations of Stromboli and Professor Buonragazzo with his Perfect Child-making machine. The effects of Pleasure island with its lost boys/donkeys and the insides of the great whale are achieved through simple props, banners and enthusiastic braying. The pace does not falter. This is a fast moving production that will captivate the younger members of the audience.
 
Fearing this might be a quasi school production, I am delighted to say I was wrong. That is not to say that it could not be performed as such, indeed pupils and parents would be delighted to see it. In this production the cast were endearing, with the younger members having the time of their lives and those a little older defining their roles. My Son Pinocchio Jr was an accomplished company piece which was well rehearsed with its joyful singing and choreography.
 
Directed by by Séimí Campbell with choreography by Holly Hughes, costume design Gregor Donnelly, lighting Andrew Exeter, sound design Andrew Johnson and its talented cast of young performers, My Son Pinocchio Jr is an enchanting production and can be enjoyed by youngsters and those of us who are (er, um) slightly older (oops, nose itching moment).

Well done to this enthusiastic company. As a side note, there is a part of me that would love to see this production performed by a mix of adults and children. I believe it has strong potential with its catchy theatrical store and innocent staging. Who knows, perhaps I can wish upon a star!
 
The British Theatre Academy was set up to give talented young people the opportunity to perform in top venues nationwide for free. This opportunity is celebrated in this production and acknowledged by Stephen Schwartz as an excellent platform to encourage children to engage with the arts.

Note: the roles are shared by separate cast members on different nights.

Listings

Southwark Playhouse

77-85 Newington Causeway 

London 

SE1 6BD

Friday 26 July -
Wednesday 14 August 2019

Box Office: 020 7407 0234
www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk


Monday - Saturday at 7.00pm

matinees at 3.00pm

Tickets: £22.00/£18.00 concs




Running time: 1 hour with no interval

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