Pinocchio review – a familiar fable is brought to captivating life

It is easy to draw up a list of items that make Pinocchio, the National’s Christmas show, beguiling. An unexpected levitation. Invisibly wired flying. The star that dances down to flick across the stage as a guardian angel. The grinning gob of the whale that floats on and swallows up key members of the cast. Oh, and as well as a witty script by Dennis Kelly there is Martin Lowe’s score, which expands and sometimes folklorically rearranges songs from the Disney movie.

Still, what really makes John Tiffany’s production distinguished is a tilting of emphasis. Suddenly, this story seems tailor-made for the stage. Of course, the telescopic proboscis is a high point – Pinocchio’s nose is a terrific shooting broomstick – as is the anti-wooden heart sentiment: When You Wish Upon a Star still soups its way to the tear ducts. But the centre of it all is the Frankenstein/Pygmalion moment of the inert coming to life.

It’s an idea skilfully, unsettlingly played with throughout the evening. Pinocchio wants to be “real” (don’t we all?) – but who’s to know who is pastiche, fake, authentic? Brilliantly, Geppetto the puppetmaker is himself a gigantic puppet (his puppeteers huddle inside him like refugees). Meanwhile, his creation, Pinocchio (sprightly Joe Idris-Roberts), slowly unbends from the wooden block in which he is carved, not as a mannequin but a human. Flesh and fabric, original and imitation are beautifully, disconcertingly entangled. This familiar fable has an unexpectedly long reach.

There is no question about the reality of the talent of Audrey Brisson, joint puppeteer and voice of Jiminy Cricket. Brisson has been captivating before – particularly in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. Now she reaches into another dimension. Her voice and sweet-clown demeanour are perfect for Pinocchio’s conscience. But she is also a crotchety cricket (really cross when called a beetle) who is obsessed with bacteria: suddenly Brisson is not only adorable but annoying. Her future is secure.

Joe Idris-Roberts (Pinocchio), James Charlton (Jiminy Cricket puppeteer) and Audrey Brisson (Jiminy Cricket). Photograph: Manuel Harlan

At the National Theatre, London, until 10 April

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