Justin Audibert and Eve Leigh on Unicorn Theatre’s Pinocchio
This Christmas at the Unicorn Theatre there’s not just one, not two, but three shows for families to choose from, both live and streamed. We were delighted to have the opportunity to chat with Artistic Director Justin Audibert and Playwright Eve Leigh about one of them, Pinocchio, and ask them about what they are getting up to with this classic family favourite.
Hi Justin, Hi Eve! It’s fabulous to get a chance to chat with you about Pinocchio – the Play at the Unicorn this season. I was going to start very rudely with “Duh, why Pinocchio AGAIN? Everyone does that!”, but having seen the incredible Gulliver‘s Travels you guys came up with earlier this year I now know better than to doubt you. What prompted you to choose this play?
EL: We’re in a moment that many people describe as “post-truth.” In a post-truth world, what is the value of telling the truth? Why teach our children to tell the truth? What kind of behaviour is encouraged in a world where your word is assumed to essentially be worthless?
I wanted to make a version of Pinocchio that was incredibly joyous and satisfying as a seasonal play, that also, quietly but persistently, asked these questions. How are we in relation to each other?
JA: Eve spoke with such a clarity of vision about how she felt the story sang to her that I was compelled to commission, and she duly delivered with her first draft. But what additionally surprised and moved me so much was how rich and true to life the relationship between Pinocchio and Gepetto was. In this version you see Gepetto struggling to be a good parent just as much as Pinocchio is struggling to be a good boy, and that is where the heart of the story lies.
The story originated in Italy way back in 1883, in Carlo Collodi’s brilliant book: are you going for a traditional style of Christmas show reflecting its heritage, or can we expect some twists and tech?
EL: Justin will talk more about this, I’m sure, but this is a playful, theatrical production that makes great use of puppetry and a very physical ensemble!
JA: We have all the festive bells and whistles that you could possibly want; sparkles, dances, live music, a set so delicious that you want to eat it right up, but we also have not shied away from the danger, darkness and surrealism of the original. Collodi mixes light and shade up so powerfully in the novel and we have been inspired to do that with this production. Any moment you find yourself belly laughing you are probably in for a nasty shock thirty seconds later…
I see there are puppets in the show, designed and made by the amazing Chris Pirie, and you have the fantastic Laura Cubitt directing puppetry and movement – both top talent! Can you tell us a bit about this?
EL: Chris taught Jean Chan, our wonderful designer, when she trained at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama so she was the first person she thought of when we realised we wanted to play with scale and puppetry in the production. Chris works with such love, care and attention to detail, but he also has a very funny sense of humour. I think the children will be scared of his hulking dogfish and I think the parents will be chortling away at his interpretation.
Laura has been someone I have wanted to work with for ages because I have followed the shows she has made and her work as a performer. It’s been a dream collaboration. She has such a wide range of skills and influences that have fed into the show. Special mention of course has to go to the delicate work she has done with Peyvand Sadeghian, our Pinocchio, in slowly turning the character from a marionette puppet into a real boy. Also, she has done some wonderful work with Susan Harrison in creating Marmalade the Cat and in giving us a Blue Fairy in Eleanor Wyld with a whole heap of world weariness, but also true magic. It’s been such a lovely experience.
What about the rest of the cast? I’m presuming there are also some humans onstage?
EL: For me, something that’s given the production a lot of richness is that Peyvand, playing a puppet, is also a professional puppeteer. I feel like you can really see that in what they bring to Pinocchio – there’s just a specificity and delicacy in their performance that helps the production language between puppets and actors come together.,
JA: Tom Kanji as Gepetto likewise brings such a tenderness to his portrayal and yet such a vulnerability and humanity. He isn’t the doddery old man in the Disney film; he is so much more rounded and flawed. And then Tom gets to absolutely let his comic chops rip in portraying the raffish and dastardly Fratello who leads Pinocchio astray. Additional shout outs to Pinocchio’s sticky fingered, studious best friend Polpetta (Eleanor Wyld), who is maybe the pinkest thing on the planet and to Sam Pay’s utterly terrifying bully Mommo, part giant manbaby part arsonist. My personal favorite character though is Eleanor as the toy obsessed Duchess, with a golden wig from the heavens. It has to be seen to be believed.
Using puppetry as part of the production, I’m guessing it will be taking us on adventures to places we wouldn’t normally get to go. What can you tell us?
EL: Did you ever wonder if there were glow-in-the-dark fish skeletons inside a shark’s belly? WONDER NO MORE (and spoiler alert).
JA: Ha ha ha! Eve, I can’t believe you’ve spilled those beans! We also do some very fun and magical flying too – well, it is Christmas after all.
Many of the audience will know the story from the Disney movie, which has some fabulous songs in it. Will you be having music too?
EL: Yes we do! Our brilliant music is by Barnaby Race, played mostly on the accordion by Sam Pay and sung by the cast.
The original story is about Pinocchio’s moral development, which sounds a bit heavy going on paper. Will there be themes that are fun and relevant to today’s audiences at Christmas?
EL: Absolutely. I’m tempted to list some of the more obviously fun and ridiculous things the production has – con artists! A murderous ginger cat! The Blue Fairy as played by Carol Kane from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt! – but really, what the production is about is the ways in which we are real to each other. We can’t understand that we’re real until we understand that other people are real, that the impact we have on other people is real. Being reminded that we’re real, that other people are real, and that our actions matter, could not be more important going into this winter.
JA: Amen to that. We want to spread joy, laughter and hope with this beautiful show this festive season.
Many thanks to Justin Audibert and Eve Leigh for taking the time out of their busy schedules to talk with us. Pinocchio runs at the Unicorn Theatre from 6 November – 31 December 2022 and is aimed at ages 7+. Check the website here for full dates plus a range of access performances.