This is tragic - not least because the play portrays a fascinating era in Russian politics. In 1921 Lenin re-introduced private enterprise to a country seething with economic discontent, which led to an explosion of blackmail and corruption. Against this backdrop, Bulgakov's aristocratic Madame Zoyka turns her apartment into a dressmaker's shop by day and a brothel by night. The resulting grotesque fantasy world - a hustle of pimps, aristocratic whores, opium dealers, and self-made bureaucrats - becomes a political statement about the depths to which the former ruling class sank in their desperation to escape to the West.
The play loses life through slack pacing and neurasthenic acting. You wish the characters were on speed rather than opium - and while Nina Field's Zoyka is delightfully disdainful, she lacks the dynamism needed for the creator of this hall of post-revolutionary horrors.
The other problem is the director's decision to stick to naturalism rather than playing up artificial elements in Bulgakov's wonderful script. This is not a criticism that could be hurled at Michael Chase's direction of The Green Snake. The play fuses Goethe's myth of death and rebirth with the unfolding dramas of five individuals waiting for a train delayed by problems more intransigent than leaves on the line, their personal tales echoed in a mythical world portrayed by an eclectic collection of mask traditions, ranging from Greek tragedy through to Sicilian puppet theatre.
Pretentious programme notes aside, there are individual strengths. Adrian Williams-Brett's singing mythical ferryman provides a stylish bridge linking the real-life to the mystical scenes, while Philippa Williams-Brett brings touching comic conviction to her Noh-inspired babbling old lady, but a cardboard script for the real-life scenes and woefully choreographed movement scupper its intentions.
It does not begin to fall into the same league as Henk Schut's excellent adult puppet Bluebeard. This production picks up on the myth's tortured sexuality - as highlighted in Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber - and manages to make wooden dolls and a bunch of rusty keys say more about fear and poisoned lust than many carefully crafted scripts.
The animators interchange masks and puppets in this intense and focused performance, frequently melding their own body movements with those of the dolls. Simple acts such as eating a melon or rolling a ball become charged with sinister symbolism. If you never thought a piece of wood could be sexual, catch the Little Angel Theatre on tour.
Old Red Lion, London EC1, (0171-837 7816) to 20 Mar; Riverside Studios, London W6 (0181-237 1111) to 13 Mar; Little Angel Theatre tour (0171-226 1787)Reuse content