Charming. Innocent. Carefree. These are words commonly associated with children’s theatre. None of them apply to the National’s production of Pinocchio, which I saw in previews last week. Thank goodness I didn’t have a child with me, though, because dark, twisted, and harrowing would be more accurate terms.

Much of this is down to the intrinsically disturbing nature of the story: an amoral wooden boy with a cricket for a conscience who is sent on a wild goose chase and punished severely for attempting to become human. And where other adaptations have doused this morality fable with saccharine, the National pulls no punches.

Pinocchio (Joe Idris-Roberts) is led by a tricksy cabaret fox (David Langham) away from the studio of his father/maker, on a quest to become real. (The fox, by the way, stabs a knife into his chest at the first meeting.) On the way, he is sold into slavery at the circus, then bundled off to the menacing “Pleasure Island” where naughty children get turned into donkeys. All this is accompanied by a chorus of creepy marionettes and masked children. It all makes the fact that his nose grows when he lies seem almost cute.

As with everything at the National, the set and staging is superb. Pinocchio is life-size, while the humans in the story – the carpenter Geppetto and the villainous men who aid the fox in kidnapping the boy – are giant papier-mâché puppets that loom and leer from above. Jiminy Cricket (Audrey Brisson) is another puppet, hopping after her charge with perfectly insectile movements.

The dance routine at Pleasure Island is flawless slapstick, hilarious and distressing in equal measure, and however they do the nose-elongation, it looks fantastically realistic. Finally, at the end, Pinocchio and Jiminy end up in the belly of a whale, in a suspended underwater sequence that’s truly breathtaking.

This is a brilliantly executed production, no question. It’s just a brilliantly executed horror story.

Maybe brave “eight-year-olds and above” (the target audience, according to the website) won’t be as scared as I was. There is music, and dancing, and eventually a happy ending. But this would have given a young me nightmares for weeks.

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