Tin Soldier, Royal Exchange Theatre Studio, Manchester

"Sometimes a song is better than a tear; sometimes a song can rescue us from fear," which is certainly the case with the catchy score in this vivid production of Noël Greig's dark but gripping take on the tale of the steadfast Tin Soldier. The story of the one-legged misfit, moulded – along with 25 apparently perfect tin soldiers – from an old metal spoon, was originally an 1838 tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

The gallant warrior undergoes trials involving a wicked troll, a vicious rat, an enormous hungry fish and some selfish little boys as he follows his destiny. That journey, through water, wind and fire, takes him in pursuit of a paper ballerina with whom he falls hopelessly in love.

It doesn't end well but, when delivered as engagingly as in this 50-minute adaptation, it certainly captures the imagination and has its young audience fired up by the miniature marching men, scanning the darkness for the hilltop castle and trying to see the swishing paper boat carrying away the tin soldier. Lewis Gibson's evocative soundscape, played out on tinkling bells, toy piano and miniature drum kit, also has them mesmerised.

Actor Gary Lagden gives a compelling account of the Tin Soldier's colourful experiences. There's nothing in the way of props, no costumes, no representative tin soldiers, no beautiful ballerina, no scorching flames. It's all in the mind's eye, thrillingly fashioned in Lagden's physical creation of each individual element of the narrative, in Greig's poetic script and in the bittersweet instrumental score and songs.

The musicians change positions, altering the configuration on the stage and also the relationship between audience and performers, the simple setting suiting the pared-down scale of a tale that can be appreciated on many levels. For five-year-old Pascal Walker it was the rhythmic pizzazz of the tiny tin army, the brave soldier's quest for the romance of his short life and the valiant endurance of a remarkable little fighter that seemed to make their mark.

Today & tomorrow 1.30pm (0161 833 9833)