The Old Rep


I have seen more Cinderellas, Dick Whittingtons and Aladdins than you could shake a fairy godmother’s wand at, so Pinocchio was a breath of fresh air . . . knotty pine scented with a hint of Ronseal of course.

It is quite simply fun family entertainment, managing to appeal to all ages, daft enough for kids, yet not so daft as to make adults inwardly, or even outwardly, groan.

It’s not panto. There is no look out behind you or yes there ises, no dames, silly songs or slapstick, instead we have a traditional tale, well told, which provides an alternative entertainment for the festive season.

Carlo Collodi’s Italian novel of 1881 was translated into English in 1892, and has been translated to more than 300 languages, making it the most translated book in history after The Bible. It has spawned a host of versions and adaptations, the best known being Disney’s 1940 film version, regarded as one of the best animated films of all time.

In this latest reworking writer Toby Hulse has based his script on the original, considerably shortened, with Ralph Birtwell as the poor toymaker Geppetto who creates Pinocchio out of a block of pine, but not just any pine, this is talking pine. Birtwell’s Geppetto has a lovely sense of fun which quickly engages the audience and convinces them to go along with him.

He quickly knocks up a rough puppet and, a simple switch later, out comes Pinocchio in the guise of Holly Sayer. The acting is a bit wooden – no, it isn't, sorry Holly, but there are some things you just can’t resist. In truth she does a great job as the puppet who has yet to learn the ways of the world, at least at the murkier end of the pond.

Her slightly awkward gait, and strangely moving arms, a result of puppet joints, is convincing and clever and she meanders along sweetly with an air of blissful innocence, being conned left, right and centre. She soon has the audience on side which is half the battle . . . what am I saying, it is pretty well all the battle when it comes to youngsters and they loved her. 

Pinocchio's growing nose when he lies was cleverly done, incidentally, with a twist on the last extra few inches cleverly garnering an extra laugh.


Holly Sayer as Pinocchio

Geppetto’s dream is to have a real son while Pinocchio’s dream is to be a real boy . . . if you can’t see where this is going you really should not be allowed out on your own.

First up for the let’s take money from the puppet game is Candlewick (because he is long and thin). played by Martin Bassindale who explains real boys don’t go to school and just play all day, conning our puppet out of his valuable schoolbook in exchange for entry to the puppet theatre.

Here Pinocchio meets the actor and puppet master Mangliafuoco, played flamboyantly, and with a lovely touch, by David Alwyn. The name translates as fire eater, but far from being fiery, this puppet master is closer to the other use of the word as a sort of braggart, as he sells his oft puppetless show to a gullible audience. He might be boastful but he is also kindly giving our puppet some money to help him on his way.

So, time for Bassindale to reappear, this time as Fox, with his companion Cat, to prove once again that a puppet and his money are soon parted. He convinces Pinocchio to bury his gold coins so they will grow into a money tree and has one of the best lines of the show as he helps our puppet with tools carried by his feline companion, turning to his furry friend and saying: “Cat! Spade!”  

Cat’s reaction is priceless – one for the adults methinks. The laughs were certainly a lot deeper in tone for that one. You need to see it to see why.

Alwyn pops up again as the Little Man who persuades Pinochio to go with him to the Land of Toys.

Little man collects children and sells donkeys with no middle man involved – get the picture – which means Pinocchio, or Eyore as we may now call him, is back in the puppet theatre as a singing, puppet donkey. Thankfully Mangliafuoco takes pity on him again and sends him on his way home.

Which brings us to Pinnochio’s hunt for Geppetto and Geppetto hunting for his son and, obviously the pair meet in the belly of a whale, as you would, before being sneezed out.

And through it all we have the Blue Fairy who appears as a grasshopper, and a budgie and a sardine . . . or it's something like that, in a delightful comic performance by Daisy Ann Fletcher.

She steals the show as the not exactly tripping lightly, nor floating elegantly fairy – more like a Strictly reject on community service fairy, popping up in disguise - well a bit of a different hat - in moments of crisis with a handful of blue fairy dust chucked in as an afterthought. It is a lovely performance of understated comedy gold.

Amid the laughs though, there is a twist to what is essentially a fun-filled family show for Christmas. It provides a strangely moving moment that no one expects, bringing a slightly shocked hush, but, thankfully, the Blue Fairy is on hand, who else, and the shock changes to cheers as all is right with the world again.

It’s a clever plotline, stopping the audience in its tracks. Everything else they could laugh at, indeed, were encouraged to laugh at, but this . . . it’s not in the original, but it creates its own dramatic climax and enhances the feel-good factor of a lovely family show.

There is also a large, hardworking ensemble from Birmingham Ormiston Academy playing everything from fishermen to carabinieri, schoolchildren to townsfolk.

Steve Allan Jones, the musical director, has written some lively songs - the scene change song was a little gem - while Steve Ellis’s choreography is never dull and Mila Sanders’simple set and costumes are bright and colourful, aimed squarely at children. I loved the rolling waves and the diving whale,

Director Alec Fellows-Bennett – who was a lead in the last two Old Rep Christmas shows – keeps everything on track and instills a lively pace, which is needed to keep the attention of youngsters . . . and, let’s be honest, grandparents. We do tend to nod off if it’s dark, warm and goes quiet.

Its fun, different, has a hint of morality about it, and is one for the entire family to enjoy – in short, a little Christmas gem. To 30-12-18.

Roger Clarke


British Sign Language (BSL) performances will take place on Friday 28 December (1pm)

A relaxed performance will take place on Saturday 15 December (1pm) 

BOA, which produces the Christmas show, is a college specialising in creative and performing arts for 14-19 year olds, and has managed The Old Rep since 2014. 

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