Chichester's Pinocchio proves the very best kind of déjà vu

REVIEW: Pinocchio, Chichester Festival Youth Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre until January 1.

Pinocchio - photo by Manuel Harlan
Pinocchio - photo by Manuel Harlan

Last year Chichester Festival Youth Theatre gave us a Pinocchio which will stand as one of the theatre’s great moments as it contemplates its 60th anniversary in 2022.

It was a production which triumphed in the face of horrid odds and then had to shut early as the Christmas Eve lockdown descended.

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Pinocchio 2020 was a huge achievement – a bravura display of skill, determination and optimism which gave us all a lift at a truly ghastly moment. Which was why it felt a little bit of a surprise when the CFT decided to return to Pinocchio for 2021. Weren’t they risking anti-climax? Shouldn’t last year’s production have been left to stand as a glorious one-off amid the most trying circumstances? Or was this unfinished business that really, really did need finishing? My instinct would have been to leave alone. How lovely to be so wrong.

With a largely different cast, new songs and a new director, Chichester Festival Youth Theatre have pulled off a mini miracle, a production which is both fresh and familiar, a re-run and a re-invention, a happy return and a brilliant new adventure. Déjà vu of the very best kind. And, with the pandemic once again rampant, déjà vu of the very worst kind too. The storm clouds are gathering just as they did this time last year; once again, we haven’t got a clue what is going to happen. But once again, we can take into our uncertainty warm memories of this terrific night.

Alex Webb is superb as Pinocchio, the puppet fashioned out of wood who would love to be a little boy, but he’s got so much to learn first. He’s arrogant, he’s stroppy and he’s frankly unpleasant. Webb gives us a wonderful sense of the journey he goes on, learning that headstrong and impulsive aren’t so terribly far away from smart, brave and resourceful – and that all three are within his grasp.

Jack Campbell gives a touching performance as Geppetto, the kind-hearted toy-maker who creates him, a lonely old man who also has his lessons to learn. No, we really don’t have to be all alike, No, we really don’t have to follow the crowd and force ourselves to fit in. Campbell gives a beautiful sense of Geppetto’s growing understanding of just what exactly fatherhood means.

Lyla Garner-Gibbons as Fairy and Honami Davies as Cricket offer a wonderful double act as they try – not always terribly successfully – to set Pinocchio on the right path. Trying to knock him off it are Olivia Dickens as Cat and Jack Taylor as Fox, a double act at the very opposite end of the niceness scale… and again, beautifully played. Impressive too from Louis Matthews as Punch and Grace Watkins as Judy (and wow, can she sing!).

But naming names is unfair when this is a show, as always, about a supremely talented group of young people working supremely well together. They all have presence on stage. They are always completely in the moment – huge credit to director Bobby Brook. She’s working with abundant diverse talent; she maximises it magnificently. Pinocchio, it’s great to have you back!