Written by John Agard, music by Igor Stravinsky
Little Angel Theatre

Publicity photo

The Stravinsky-Benois-Fokine ballet of the same name is one of many incarnations that propelled the Russian puppet character Petrushka from populist jokester to high art tragedian, and it is this manifestation to which Petrushka at the Little Angel owes most.

Here Petrushka is a puppet, not unlike Punch, who has taken on human characteristics and, although he is liberated from his strings, he doesn't have true freedom since he continues to be under the domination of the cruel puppet master. His love for the ballerina puppet in the troupe is unrequited and in desperation he makes a getaway to Switzerland where he meets Stravinsky and convinces him to write a different story than the one Petrushka is part of. As the sheet music floats in the air Petrushka starts to dance and the other puppets join him in Stravinsky's new ballet, but it ends in tragedy as it must, because destiny cannot be cheated.

The story told in the ballet is clearly recognisable within this stage version by John Agard, who has also taken the ballet's distinctive scene-by-scene structure rather than providing a progressive narrative, and the mini-ballet in the second act, which itself opens with an ill-fitting but seasonal "it's behind you" sketch, accentuates a lack of cohesion.

It's a piece that takes a little warming to - the purpose the of impish busy puppets building a wall of brown boxes is a fair time coming, and the market place scene seems of disproportionate length, mimicking the ballet rather than fulfilling a purpose of its own in the context of this piece. Then there is a narrator who, nicely accented, introduces the bustling St Petersburg fair with references to White Nights, Nevsky Prospekt and the likes of Akhmatova which had me wondering what was Agard up to. However, there can only be one answer to those who would ask if any of this is really a problem: "Oh no, it isn't!"

The love triangle story of Petrushka falling for the ballerina, but her spurning his affection in favour of the circus juggler is clearly set out for all ages, and the more sinister elements are not dwelt upon and will skim the heads of those too young to pick up on them. Josh Darcy is not a disturbingly scary puppet master and when he takes the top off the puppet's head and spills the contents, the grownups might get the poignancy of him showing that for all his ability to feel Petrushka was not human, but the young audience let out a joyful "yuk!"

Co-directors Steve Tiplady and Lyndie Wright have included lots to entertain the little ones. Simple techniques such as characters entering unexpectedly via side doors and the auditorium, and getting the children to pass sacks over their heads all go down a treat. And of course they delight in the 'silly business' between Petrushka and Mr Stravinsky (also played by Josh Darcy, with a cuddly avuncular quality that makes him very engaging).

The puppets of Lyndie Wright, John Roberts and Rebekah Wild are wonderful creations and with puppeteers Ronnie Le Drew, Mandy Travis and Wild they are in able hands indeed. Petrushka's gaunt face and red nose is evocative and his movement agile and sensitive, and whilst the ballerina and juggler are graceful and nimble, Petrushka appears to move with a subtly more human gait. As Petrushka imploringly beats the chest of the giant puppet master and Stravinsky's piano duet reaches a crescendo, it is emotive stuff.

Petrushka is not as immediately accessible as last year's Christmas show The Giraffe and The Pelly and Me (which had a younger audience) or as beguiling as more traditional stories such as Sleeping Beauty but it has a certain charm and most importantly it has heart.

Sandra Giorgetti saw "Petrushka" in preview. The show opens this weekend and runs until 31 January 2010 with some special evening performances for older children and adults and no baby-friendly performances. "Petrushka" is suitable for age 5 and over. "Splish Splash!" is presented for younger audiences running from 10 December to 31 January

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti