The Most Incredible Thing, Sadler's Wells, London

A Hans Christian Andersen tale set in a Soviet-style state, with a star choreographer and Pet Shop Boys score, tries too hard to do too much
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The Independent Culture

Even the show's title is an invitation to scepticism. Add to this the storm of hyperbole preceding the opening night and its roster of A-list collaborators, and the whole project is a giant hostage to fortune. The Most Incredible Thing is the first venture into ballet music for the synth-pop duo known as the Pet Shop Boys, the first narrative dancework by the notorious Javier De Frutos, and a career gamble for Ivan Putrov, the ex-Royal Ballet principal who gave up his plum job to star in it.

An extravaganza lasting two-and-a-half hours, it begins from a very simple premise: a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen. A king holds a national contest to find "the most incredible thing", the prize: half the kingdom and marriage to a princess.

An impoverished artist, Leonardo, wins the judges' vote with a magical clock from which wonders emerge as it chimes the hour. Driven by jealousy, the vicious Karl smashes the clock, forcing the judges to revise their decision: the wanton destruction of art, they agree, is more incredible still. It's a fantastic turnabout, even for a fairy story. Shouldn't honest human toil win the day? This ought to be fertile ground for theatrical exploration, but for all its ambition, this multimedia effort barely rakes the surface.

One of its ideas is to set the action in a Soviet-style dictator-state, with factory drones performing tightly drilled, mechanised routines that are at once vigorous and repressed, and historically underpinned by reference to Expressionist dance of the 1930s. Powered by the four-square thump of typical Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe pop, configured for a miked-up orchestra, these busy, massed ensembles provide some of the show's most powerful moments.

When it comes to telling the story, however, the production is oddly incompetent. Dance solos introducing Leo and Karl are barely differentiated. Certainly, both Aaron Sillis and Ivan Putrov are demons at spinning and jumping, but it's nonsense to give them similar steps when one is meant to be a dreamy artist and the other a vandalising bully. The piece also suffers a fatal lack of dramatic momentum, with two intervals where one or none would have served it better.

Katrina Lindsay's set is literally a thing of smoke and mirrors, a maze of hinged screens and rotating doors that reflect shards of the action but which also give rise to bumbling entrances and exits. A more fruitful design theme is the paper cut-out (an art practised with skill by Andersen himself). A giant, intricately cut-out lantern makes a splendid centrepiece and symbol of human ingenuity. Tal Rosner's video animates the magic clock as a psychedelic light show which, though dazzling in its Constructivist shapes and colours, never quite blows you away.

It was inevitable that the royal contest should be staged as a dig at the idiocy of TV shows such as Britain's Got Talent, but the comedy falls horribly flat with its naff litany of non-performing dogs and towels fashioned into swans. Andersen's original text conjured more bizarre visions with its contestants "who ate themselves to death" and street urchins "spitting on their own backs".

A more compelling reason to see this show (sure to return for a longer run) is the powerhouse performance of the three leads. Newcomer Clemmie Sveaas as the Princess is a gutsy heroine and a dazzling exponent of De Frutos's furiously articulated choreographic style, when he chooses to show his true face, that is. More often he's quoting other people, with entire scenes based on Balanchine's Apollo and Nijinska's Les Noces, and clever-clogs references to ballet milestones such as The Green Table and Spectre de la Rose, even Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake – trainspotter fun for those in the know, but otherwise irrelevant.

Dance Choice

Known for the mix of sharp social comment and provocative humour in its dance shows, Luca Silvestrini's award-winning company Protein, above, examines the impact of social networking in LoL (lots of love). At Corn Exchange, Brighton (Fri & Sat), Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury, (5 Apr), Riverfront, Newport (7 Apr), Deda, Derby (15 & 16 Apr).