Jasmin Vardimon is best known as a choreographer of urban dance theatre, addressing social and political issues in a language of tough, functional physicality. With her voyage into the fairytale world of Pinocchio, however, Vardimon has liberated herself to joyously new levels of dance invention in this show aimed at children and families.
Pinocchio is danced by the astoundingly versatile Maria Doulgeri, who is vividly credible as a puppet boy: his/her movements are as light as balsa wood and as dysfunctionally disjointed as a stringless marionette. The evil Fox and Cat, who lure Pinocchio into disgrace, are a riotous double act of jazzy energy and oily insinuation, while other characters are created out of brilliantly minimal means. Pinocchio’s consciousness is present on stage as a neon-lit face, his earnestly talkative features assembled out of fluttering human hands; the spaghetti-eating couple who Pinocchio encounters are merely two pairs of delightfully animated, painted feet.
Vardimon’s choreography is superbly performed by her hard-working cast of eight and is well complemented by the artful stage illusions delivered by her design team. The Blue Fairy hovers beautifully in the air, furniture and props fly about, the lighting for the fairground scene is a riot of lollipop colours and patterns, and when Geppetto goes in search of Pinocchio, his boat sails along a convincingly turbulent sea of fabric. Yet beguiling as this production is on the eye, it lacks the narrative zip and tension necessary to hold us as a story.
Dramaturge Guy Bar-Amotz has worked with Vardimon to focus on the plot’s moral structure, charting each of the different emotions (curiosity, fear, loneliness etc) that Pinocchio has to experience in order to become properly human. Their approach is based on the original Carlo Collodi tale, yet too often the emphasis on moralising is at the expense of the story. This is a family-oriented show, advertised for children aged seven and above, but key elements of plot and character are lost in the over-extended dance sections in which Vardimon choreographs abstract emotional states. Too much of the taped, often turgid voiceover sounds like a sermon.
Some of the action is difficult to follow unless you know the story well: there’s no real explanation as to why the marionette theatre director (an impressively roaring beast of a character) turns on Pinocchio in a rage. It’s unclear why the naughty children are turned into donkeys – indeed this nightmare scenario feels oddly unscary. The key problem lies in the representation of Pinocchio, however, for in presenting him as such a comically blank character, Vardimon and Bar-Amotz have failed to make us feel the urgency of his moral choices, the life and death imperative of him making his way back to Geppetto. There is so much that is so good about this Pinocchio, but without a more dynamic sense of storytelling, it never becomes more than the sum of its parts.
• At Sadler’s Wells, London, until 25 October. Box office: 020-7863 8000. At Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, on 29 October. Box office: 01743 281281. Then touring.