REVIEW: My Son Pinocchio JR, British Theatre Academy (Southwark Playhouse)

It’s been a Disney kind of week. It started with Aladdin the film. Then Aladdin the stage show. And then a sneaky trip to Southwark Playhouse to My Son Pinocchio JR, performed by a cast of young actors as part of a summer takeover by the British Theatre Academy. Mummy was in two minds about booking Pinocchio, not least because it’s quite difficult to spell. Turns out Italian is not Mummy’s forte! It is also one of the darker Disney stories, with themes of stranger danger and debauchery. Mummy is not hugely fond of the scare tactics and authoritarian approach to parenting advocated in this tale of the naughty puppet who becomes a real boy. On the other hand, she is quite the fan of Steven Schwartz and rather partial to a subverted fairy story. And this is very much Pinocchio turned on his little wooden head.

Rather than a cautionary tale to children, My Son Pinocchio JR sends a message to their parents about accepting your children as they are. Told from Geppetto’s perspective, it is a brilliant take on the classic story which will no doubt hit home for the adults of the audience. It was so close to home for us, in fact, that Mummy and Mrs Mummy spent most of the hour wincing. Not a flaw of the musical itself, or the amazingly talented cast, but due to some themes which may be problematic for adoptees or others who have experience of the care system or family breakdown.

The story begins with Geppetto asking the Blue Fairy to take back Pinocchio, who he considers defective due to his poor behaviour. Of itself, a difficult message to hear for children who have been taken away from their birth families, but made worse by a repeated message that it is the people who shouldn’t have children who always end up having them. Ashamed of his inability to follow the rules, Pinocchio runs away to where he is wanted, as a performer in Stromboli’s puppet show. Worried about Pinocchio’s whereabouts, but still adamant that he doesn’t want him, Geppetto strikes a deal with the Blue Fairy that if he finds Pinocchio, she must take him back. Meanwhile, Pinocchio has escaped the clutches of Stromboli and is off again.

There follows a scene in a factory which makes perfect children, and allows prospective parents to select the characteristics they desire. Again, uneasy viewing for an adopter. But this is where Geppetto finally realises that he doesn’t want the perfect child. He wants Pinocchio, imperfections and all, and rushes off to find him on Pleasure Island. After an encounter involving a boat and a whale, Pinocchio and Geppetto are eventually reunited and work together to escape (with a few home truths shared along the way). But having found Pinocchio, Geppetto is due to complete on his deal with the Blue Fairy, who has also promised Pinocchio to Stromboli. Thankfully, the fairy has a trick up her sleeve that will reunite Father and Son. And then comes the final uncomfortable message for adopted children with two mummies – that a child needs a father. Awkward though the messages may be for families like ours, they pack a powerful punch and may well act as a catalyst for valuable conversations about the meaning of family.

Staged simply yet effectively in the intimate setting of The Little, with not a microphone in sight, this cast of youngsters puts on as professional a production as any other to have graced this stage. Geppetto and The Blue Fairy are played by teenagers (both excellent at the Sunday 5pm showing), with most of the remainder of the cast made up of younger children, including four fabulous fairies in training who light up the stage. The whole cast is impressive and Stromboli is a particular highlight. A stage full of stars to wish upon and a brilliant family friendly production, albeit with strings attached for adoptive families.

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles and Mittens (aka 4 out of 5 of my favourite things).