Very young audiences may well be inspired by seeing their peers storm the stage en masse in the British Theatre Academy’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, currently playing a month-long run at the Ambassadors Theatre. With its rotating ensembles adding up to over 200 kids (most of them pre-adolescent, some a bit older), this 80-minute musical, which had its premiere in Chicago in 2011, serves as a hearty endorsement of youth participation in the arts. It’s a bit of a shame, though, that this crew of child actors doesn’t have meatier material to chew on.
This Pinocchio adaptation, with a score by Neil Bartram and book by Brian Hill, is entirely edgeless, lacking any sense of self-awareness of its neutered earnestness. Kids can enjoy wittier, wiser material than this show gives them credit for. The few attempts at humour usually fall flat – at one point, Hill’s book has Pinocchio literally step forward to explain a weak pun to the audience. Bartram doesn’t disguise his musical dependency on Into the Woods, but the dissonances he borrows from that score seem out of place in this bland retelling. There are a lot of musical Pinocchios out there (my favourite is the silly but deliciously self-deprecating TV movie Geppetto, adapted for stage as My Son Pinocchio) and Bartram and Hill don’t make much of an argument that their interpretation adds anything new to the mix.
Thin as the piece may be, director Bronagh Lagan and choreographer Anthony Whiteman have come up with a clean, cheerful staging that shows off their spirited cast. Although the unfortunate use of overly loud pre-recorded music doesn’t serve the children as well as a live orchestra might, the ensemble handles the playing conditions with practiced precision.
Nathaniel Purnell nicely portrays Pinocchio’s transition from instinctual rebellion to chastened truthfulness. Playing the feline fraudster Cat, Matilda Hopkins is a delightful, winking scene-stealer. Although she’s only the age for “It’s The Hard Knock Life,” she has just about enough grown-up slyness to jump into the West End’s Annie singing “Easy Street.” As the slingshot-toting bully Lampwick, the talented James Sampson robustly leads the cast in the show’s most boisterous number, “Terra di Ragazzi,” and Tabitha Knowles makes a winningly villainous Puppet Master. (The only adults in the cast, Martin Neely as Geppetto and Lizzie Rees as the Blue Fairy, seem out of place as the chaperones of this youthful troupe.)
For the adult looking to get in touch with the inner child, look elsewhere (maybe The Secret Life of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre?), but if you want to get your kids excited about performing, this could be the show for them.
The Adventures of Pinocchio is playing at the Ambassadors Theatre until August 30.
Photo: Roy Tan