The latest astonishing achievement from the creators of War Horse

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

The Twilight Zone, an American TV show from the early 1960s, reinvented the ghost story for the age of space exploration. Director Richard Jones has collaborated with Anne Washburn to turn several TV episodes into a single play. Eight episodes in all. Way too many. The structure is designed to bamboozle us from the start. Some of the storylines have been broken up and are placed episodically throughout the piece, while others are preserved as units and delivered whole. Even the most keen-eyed viewer gets flummoxed by this mystery. Among the storylines that baffled me were: a cop quizzes some stranded bus passengers to find out which is an alien; a little girl vanishes through a wormhole in space-time; a man is haunted by a lack of sleep; a group of airmen returning from a mission discover that two or three (or perhaps just one) of them have been airbrushed out of newspaper reports. A group of angry neighbours fight over the last berth in a bomb shelter during a nuclear attack.

The show looks cheap and flimsy and it aims for an atmosphere of goofy pastiche. There are lots of gags involving silly props and mysteriously vanishing cigarettes. One of the actors specialises in an ‘amusing’ laugh. Played at midnight to an audience of drunks, the show would succeed. For about five minutes. Then it would stale. The running time is two-and-a-half hours. I’ve seen a few muddles posing as dramas at the Almeida but this is one of the hardest to disentangle.

Pinocchio is the story of a genial carpenter who carves a toy out of a plank of wood. The toy, Pinocchio, is possessed by a single ambition: to dispense with his wooden nature and become a human being like his creator. Arranging the puppetry for this script must be the easiest task in showbusiness: Pinocchio should be represented by a puppet and the human characters should be represented by human beings. John Tiffany’s production at the National reverses this set-up. The humans are played by puppets. And Pinocchio, the puppet, is played by a human being who wears nothing but skimpy breeches, as if to remind the audience that he’s made of flesh and blood rather than timber. All rather puzzling.

To make things even more topsy-turvy, the puppets on stage (who represent human characters) dominate the action. Physically, these mannequins are huge, like weather-balloons, with vast immobile faces and gangly limbs operated by levers manipulated by shuffling assistants. They seem to drift in midair like beach balls caught in a wind-spiral. Their faces, incapable of movement, are unable to convey changes of mood or sentiment and their lack of vitality reduces the show’s pace to slow motion. Few in the audience cared much for these conceptual own goals. My son, aged 11, hailed the show as ‘brilliant’ and ‘nearly as good as Aladdin’. I should add that he spent a fair amount of time nudging me and asking me in whispers if I wasn’t bored.

Victor Hugo’s novel The Grinning Man has been turned into a hit musical by Bristol Old Vic. Now it arrives in the West End. The central character, Grinpayne, is an orphan who was attacked in infancy by an unknown thug who left him with a hideous grin plastered across his face. Grinpayne is discovered by a sweet-natured impresario who exhibits him to paying audiences. With them is a beautiful blind child, Dea, whom Grinpayne falls in love with. They’re joined by a slavering wolf, Mojo, who at first threatens but later befriends them. Grinpayne’s mission is to discover the identity of the criminal who disfigured him and to win the heart of Dea.

There’s plenty of material here for a romantic fairy tale but the story has another layer of narrative complexity. The setting is a pastiche version of Regency London where a decrepit king, Clarence XII, lies on his deathbed. His children are a set of bickering egomaniacs who indulge in incestuous orgies at the palace while tussling over the right to succeed their father. One of the royal princes visits the circus and becomes enraptured by Grinpayne’s frozen smile. The two stories cross-fertilise and we jump between the power games at the palace and Grinpayne’s quest to identify his childhood assailant. The changes of gear are a little bumpy and Grinpayne’s desire to win the heart of Dea is never seriously threatened. But the show works very well as a musical. The tunes are strong, the singing is excellent. And the puppetry, modest in scale, is superb.

Mojo the wolf is the latest achievement from Gyre and Gimble (who created War Horse). Two actors using a flimsy piece of apparatus manage to replicate a wolf’s furtive and sinuous menace. Mojo may not be very cuddly but the effect is astonishing.

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