Pinocchio, Linbury Studio, ROH, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Winner by more than just a nose
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The Independent Culture

Will Tuckett's Pinocchio is lively, inventive - and sinister. As the puppet hero's nose grows, a whale looms out of a silken sea, and monstrous arms reach out to catch boys who have been turned into donkeys. Characters scamper between speech, dance and song, diving on and off the stage.

The story of the puppet who becomes a real live boy is already familiar, known best from the Disney cartoon version. Tuckett and his collaborators felt free to elaborate, adding curlicues without blurring the plot.

This Pinocchio follows Tuckett's immensely successful The Wind in the Willows, also for the Royal Opera House and using the same design team. Nicky Gillibrand dresses the dancers in woolly pullovers and greasepaint. In early scenes, the townsfolk wear doll makeup, whitened faces with red lips and cheeks. The devilish showman Stromboli twirls his moustache, and his belly swells as he gets above himself. The Brothers Quay provide terrific sets: a whole forest in a single looming tree, twinkling lightbulbs that suggest starlight or fairground advertising.

There's more of the fairground in Martin Ward's music. His small band includes violin, accordion and saxophone, and there are hints of tango, Hungarian folk song, with a dash of Romany. Much of Tuckett's storytelling is in mime, sidling into dances. Ward's music has the same kind of mix - singers slipping from recitative into song, tunes wriggling out of atmospheric music.

The writer Phil Porter has the characters speaking in mixed-up languages - an approximate Italian accent for the woodcarver Geppetto, simpler speech for Pinocchio. Stromboli, tempting the hero away from school, pours out English words with Russian, Italian or nonsense endings. At first, I wondered whether the story would get lost under so much decoration, but the show's theatrical energy drives it on.

Matthew Hart (Pinocchio) is at his best in odd, slightly grotesque roles. A tendency to exaggeration becomes expressive here, his limbs flailing as he tries to keep his wooden body under control. Luke Heydon is a bumbling Geppetto, knees jerking as he walks, head lolling as he hiccups along. With all this physical detail, Heydon lacks heart: you don't feel his longing for a son, or his grief.

As Stromboli, Will Kemp speaks and dances with extraordinary spontaneity. He plays with words and movement as if he's only just thought of them, lit up with glee at his own schemes. And he produces real menace as the plot turns darker. Pinocchio and his schoolmates are lured away to the Land of Toys, turned into donkeys by adult temptations, driven to a factory to be minced up for glue. Minutes before, Kemp was cajoling the audience into returning the beachballs that had been thrown into the auditorium. Yet this shift into cruelty comes naturally: it has always been there, half-hidden under the exuberant language.

Stromboli has a Cat and Fox as henchmen. As with The Wind in the Willows, Gillibrand puts animals in clothes, adding tails and whiskers to tweedy costumes. Charlotte Broom makes a foxy Fox, whisking her tail, dropping into showgirl poses. She prances as she sets off to do evil, or stops to dance a tango with Tom Sapsford's put-upon Cat. The Blue Fairy, who advises and rescues Pinocchio, is a dance role with words. Cathy Marston doesn't speak, but we hear her advice as she looks at the puppet boy. She glides through the action on a silver scooter, hair in untidy bunches, wand in hand.

Tuckett's choreography has few set-piece dances, but his movements and stagecraft drive the show. Scenes shift quickly, whole sections of the plot growing out of tiny details. The mood changes as the characters change the way they stand, or the way they look at each other. This Pinocchio scampers along, always ready to lurch into darkness or laughter.

To 7 January (020-7304 4000); then touring to Theatre Royal, Norwich; The Lowry, Salford; and Coronation Hall, Ulverston

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