Family & Parenting

Lyric theatre's Christmas show takes families on an adventure with Pinnochio

Jenny Lee chats to Belfast writer and composer Paul Boyd about the challenging of bringing his 25th original musical to life this Christmas and how young audiences today are more sophisticated and demanding

Pinocchio: The Greatest Wonder of the Age is a re-imagining of Carlo Collodi’s classic tale of a real live wooden boy on an incredible journey to find his true family

ROLL up! Roll up! It's Christmas show time again and the creative team at Belfast's Lyric theatre are transporting audiences to 1905 and the world of the Victoria circus sideshows in a brand new version of the Pinocchio story.

Pinocchio: The Greatest Wonder of the Age is a re-imagining of Carlo Collodi's classic tale of a real live wooden boy on an incredible journey to find his true family.

It features a circus company of musicians and unforgettable characters, including the amazing conjuror Mr Fox, the world famous acrobat Lady Cat, and prima donna opera star the Red Lobster.

Add to the mix the evil circus owner Swallowfire and, of course, one little wooden boy who wants to run away from the circus and whose nose can lead him into trouble...

Pinocchio: The Greatest Wonder of the Age is the 25th original stage musical by writer, composer and director Paul Boyd.

The Belfast creative admits that this has been his most "challenging" and "creative" project to date.

The show was first commissioned in December 2019, during the run of his musical Peter Pan, but the global coronavirus pandemic meant hopes of staging it in 2020 had to be cancelled.

"During lockdown, the Lyric production team and I came up with emergency plan after emergency plan. We developed the show in every conceivable production style possible - from a shorter show with less cast to a walk through experience - before finally pulling the plug on it, like theatres across the country."

However, due to differences in the rate of Covid, one of his previous successful shows, Alice the Musical, did run in Japan last Christmas.

Paul used his spare time to concentrate solely on composing the music for the show and in early 2021, with uncertainty and insecurity still prevalent in the theatre industry, he approached some of his "friends and favourite musical theatre performers and musicians" with the idea of recording the songs on an album.

It's available to download and stream on all major digital platforms, as well as to purchase from the Lyric theatre's website and in person during the show run.

Those performing on the album include television star Su Pollard (Hi-de-Hi!), Tyrone Broadway star Fra Fee (The Ferryman), Sabrina Aloueche (We Will Rock You), Allison Harding (Sister Act), Mark Dugdale (The Commitments), Jamie Steen (The Good Old Days) and Alan Richardson (Chicago).

"What is lovely now is it's almost the same show we planned to do at the end of 2019," says Paul, who is delighted to be back in the rehearsal room - albeit operating very differently.

"We are being very stringent, as apart from keeping everyone safe as individuals, we are trying to keep the show safe to ensure there aren't any cancellations."

This includes wearing masks when not speaking, floor markers to ensure social distancing, an increased number of understudies and keeping the cast and production crews in separate units.

"Normally the Christmas show has a big family atmosphere with everyone in the theatre popping in to say hello, but we can't this year as we have to be so careful," he says.

"When you come to see the show I hope it looks like every other year - but underneath that the mechanics of getting the show up and running and rehearsing the show safely is a huge undertaking."

Allison Harding as Swallowfire in Pinocchio: The Greatest Wonder of the Age at Belfast's Lyric Theatre this Christmas

So what can we expect?

As with all Paul Boyd shows, there is no scrimping on production values, with elaborate costumes, stunning set designs and this year there will be actor musicians playing live music on a variety of instruments such as violin, mandolin, banjo and accordion.

"On set we have built the backstage of the circus, with tents and caravans. And the costumes, like the music, are very atmospheric and out of this world - especially the bearded lady, Swallowfire," says Paul.

Very aware of more demanding and sophisticated audiences, he believes the musical is more in line with the popular musical film genre of today.

"I had written a traditional version of Pinocchio back in 2006, so when the theatre suggested it again, I said I wanted to do something different and make it up to date for modern audiences," recalls Paul.

"When I started writing shows 30 years ago the plot had to be quite simple and straightforward. But because of the Twilight and Harry Potter books and films that children and young people read, they now want more complex and intricate subplots.

"They also expect the music and a wow factor, like seen in Frozen and The Greatest Showman.

"As a writer I am now truly writing a family show that audiences whether they are eight or 98 will get as much out of it, and that is brilliant."

Pinocchio: The Greatest Wonder of the Age is Paul Boyd's 25th original musical

Whilst the show does include a tightrope walker, in the form of Lady Cat (Christina Nelson) and a magician in the form of Mr Fox (Richard Clements), Paul warns audiences not to be expecting circus skills of the Cirque du Soleil standard.

"This is about a circus that is not terribly good," he laughs.

"It's about capturing the circus feel. We go right back to the heyday of the circus at the end of the 19th century and capture that atmosphere. So it's much more about marvel and curiosity than acrobatics."

And of course the show comes with a moral: "It's about being yourself. All of our characters are being forced to be someone else just to survive.

"But by the end they realise you can be happy and successful by using their talents and being themselves."

Pinocchio: The Greatest Wonder of the Age is at Belfast's Lyric theatre from November 26 to December 31. Tickets at Lyrictheatre.co.uk.

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