Pinocchio, Linbury Theatre, London

Oh boy, you tell the sweetest little lies
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The Independent Culture

While it's true that quality theatre for children and families has mushroomed in the past few years, it's still unusual to find a show that embraces all the performing arts, giving as much emphasis to dance and movement as to speech, music and song. Will Tuckett's Pinocchio is that rare bird, making space too for bold designs by the Quay Brothers to create a storm-tossed sea and the belly of a whale as well as a magic tree that spurts into growth to produce the titular wooden puppet.

Tuckett is a choreographer, but increasingly his career has led him away from pure dance to blur the boundaries: Wind in the Willows was his first hit at the Linbury, followed by a wildly imaginative Soldier's Tale, and now this distinctly dark telling of the 19th-century Italian morality tale, worlds away from the anodyne Disney version. And the great thing is that these productions are compact enough to tour: perhaps next year Pinocchio will reach an even wider public.

It takes about 15 seconds to know that this one is going be good, never mind that Geppetto's accent is pitched somewhere between the Walls Cornetto ad and Manuel from Fawlty Towers. Luke Heydon - who recently left the Royal Ballet as a character dancer - gives a touching reading of the ageing carpenter who longs for a son, feeding character through his doddery limbs as much as through action and voice.

Craftily, Tuckett plants two fine singers among his onstage chorus of dancers, and these two give a running commentary in song - their diction so crisp I didn't miss a syllable - setting the scene, moving the action along, and generally adding pep and polish to the musical ensemble. I loved their florid interruptions of Geppetto's patter song, helping him choose a name for his foundling wooden son.

The figure of Pinocchio (a perfectly cast Matthew Hart) is beautifully conceived both in terms of design (a costume by Nicky Gillibrand that really does resemble smoothly turned pine) and movement. The sequence where he tries his legs for the first time is so funny and tender I wanted to laugh and cry. Being a virtuoso, Hart makes a brilliant spectacle of staggering on his heels, collapsing on his knees and bouncing up as if powered by elastic bands. When he pulled on his little trunks and shirt and tottered off to school I could barely restrain a motherly "aaah", along with a hundred others.

The great thing about this Pinocchio is that there's as much in it for adults as for their young, and some of it is pretty scary for both parties. Yes, there's a gentle Blue Fairy who rides a micro-scooter, and a classic scene when Pinocchio's nose grows. But the mood changes after Pinocchio and his friends succumb to Stromboli's offer of drink and cigars. It's menacing when mechanical arms reach out to drag them into Stromboli's lair, but positively Psycho-like when they emerge in the dark and smoke, having been turned into donkeys, honking and shrieking and trying to escape on their new hoofs, with Stromboli, a wild axe-man, in pursuit. You have been warned.

Adhesive is provided by the marvellous music of Martin Wood, setting a cracking pace at the side of the stage on fiddle, clarinet, accordion and double bass - a klezmer-ish sound, but with its hints of tango, Neapolitan tarantella and gypsy rhythms. Writer Phil Porter is another key creative voice, putting words into characters mouths with obvious relish for anarchic variants, culminating in Will Kemp's moustache-twirling Stromboli, a font of meaningful gibberish complete with Spanish, Russian and Italian word-endings. The lyrics of the patter song sung by the schoolteacher are so funny they could be published separately.

Yet no element is allowed to take precedence: this is a true hybrid and as such is largely satisfying. Some sections could be further developed (Pinocchio really needs to tell more fibs to count as a liar) and others cut back (too much confusing business from the Fox and Cat trying to steal Pinocchio's money). But on the whole I can't think of a children's show I've wanted to see again so much.

Theatre Royal, Norwich (01603 630 000) 18-21 Jan; Quays Theatre, The Lowry, Salford (0870 787 5780) 24-28 Jan; Coronation Hall, Ulverston (01229 578 140) 9-11 Feb

Jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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