No strings attached...

The highlight of The Old Rep Theatre’s festive season is family favourite Pinocchio - the  much-loved story of a puppet who’s brought to life... What’s On recently spoke to director  Alec Fellows-Bennett about the show and his ongoing love affair with The Old Rep... 

Pinocchio is the walking, talking puppet who countless generations have come to know and love - along with his chirruping side-kick and his mischievous nose that grows and grows whenever he tells even the smallest of porky pies.

Director Alec Fellows-Bennett, who helms The Old Rep’s stage adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s classic story, thinks the tale perfectly captures the spirit of Christmas: “I think that it’s good for the festive season because it’s a very recognisable title. Actually, the story isn’t going to be exactly what people expect because everyone's so used to the Disney film, and the original story differs from that a little bit. 

“Pinocchio is fundamentally not so much a story about a puppet as a story about humanity, and about how our behaviour, traits and conduct give us this quality. It’s about whether it really matters that you’re made of wood when you exhibit the humanity and innocence that Pinocchio does. I see this as really fitting with the festive season, a time that’s so giving and celebratory, with 'good will to all men’. Plus, of course, it’s about puppets and bright, colourful theatre, with toys that come to life. So for the little ones, it’s their Christmas presents coming to life in front of their eyes.”

Many of us think of Pinocchio as a puppet dreaming of becoming a real boy. The Old Rep’s version sees the part played by young actress Holly Sayer...

“When we put the casting call out, we didn’t make it specific to a gender, and it was Holly who best fitted with our vision for the character. I wouldn’t say it’s an androgynous Pinocchio either because Holly won’t be able to help bringing who she is to the role. We’re focusing on Pinocchio being a non-human character learning what it means to be a human being. Pinocchio takes every new situation at face value because it doesn’t understand basic human concepts. For example, Pinocchio doesn’t realise the fox and the cat are robbers, so when told one coin is worth more than three, Pinocchio just assumes they’re telling the truth. Holly has such an innocence about her - just like Pinocchio. She was just brilliant at portraying the character’s growth.”

Alec is very keen to promote theatre as an inclusive, social, family environment: “I don’t think anybody anywhere should ever think that they can’t take their child to the theatre. For our signed and relaxed performances, hardly anything changes. It’s so lovely to watch those in the audience who don’t need the signing just accepting the presence of that feature as part of the performance. Equally, the only changes made to the show for the relaxed performance is that we may remove certain loud noises or strobe lighting and similar things that could cause distress. In the actual content of the performance, nothing changes other than that we might take some sections slightly slower to make sure everything is audible.
“It’s incredibly important to develop theatre for families as a social thing. It’s not like the cinema, where you sit in the dark so absorbed in the film that it’s like there’s nobody else with you. Theatre is one of the few things that forces you to be a collective, forces you to be an audience and become a collective group all interacting with and responding to the same piece of work. I want this to be open to absolutely everybody.”

Alec is a very familiar face at The Old Rep and has a long-standing relationship with the theatre: “The Old Rep was the home of Birmingham’s stage school, and that’s where I went. In my early 20s I returned for a few roles, and I was always keen to get back. The Old Rep is probably my favourite theatre because of its great history and all the people and companies who’ve worked and performed there. So when they started producing their own Christmas shows, I was keen to get involved.”

This time around, however, Alec wanted to direct: “I very much go between being an actor and being a director. I want to direct things in which I’m very invested in the story as a whole, and I like to act in things where a particular character really sparks my interest. This is a brand spanking new adaptation written for The Old Rep, and I’ve worked with the writer, Toby Hulse, before. It’s a play perfect for the venue, and it has the perfect original music accompaniment too, written by Steve Allan Jones to match the script.”

Alec discovered his passion for directing completely by chance - with a little help from British stereotyping: “I ended up acting in America and, because I had an English accent, I guess they assumed I knew what I was talking about! I was asked by a company over there if I would direct their next production, which happened to be a Shakespeare - I guess that fact was very much on my side too! From there, I realised I liked the directing side of the theatre world. From that time onwards I’ve taken each project as it comes, getting a lot of satisfaction from either acting or directing - providing the project has been suitable, of course.” 

Pinocchio shows at The Old Rep Theatre, Birmingham, from Sat 17 November to Sunday 30 December.