Performed and captioned in Welsh, English and some French, Petula is a coproduction between Wales’s two national theatre companies and August012, and follows the intergalactic adventure of 12-year-old Pwdin Evans. Catapulted into space by his javelin-throwing stepfather – who acquired supernatural strength in a gleefully grisly duck à l’orange sacrifice – Pwdin steals away from earthbound angst, parental squabbles and French homework, and instead goes searching for his missing cousin, Petula.
Directed by Mathilde López, and adapted and translated by Daf James from Fabrice Melquiot’s 2007 play Wanted Petula, it is a grotesque and absurd giddy fantasy from the outset. Partly a riff on The Little Prince, it similarly takes wild flights of fancy unencumbered by naturalistic logic.
Performed among thousands of small black balls, bodies hide, writhe and glide across the stage. Jean Chan’s design sets Pwdin’s journey in the gap between innocence and knowing; the tactile playthings of childhood now hint towards something far more sensual and mysterious. Joe Price’s lighting is gorgeous – fluorescent tubes that progressively fill the night sky – and Lopez’s direction is dexterous and fine. Through juddering rides on the back of a flea or – in a poignant moment – the glimpse of a row of grandparents with their backs turned, the show is filled with stage images that expand the edges of the universe.
It is gamely performed by an energetic cast who embrace its absurdities. As Pwdin, Dewi Wykes is endearing, carrying the weight of the world with the same ease with which he switches languages. Rachel Summers, as his stepmother Amethyst Crappp, Beyoncé and a hyperactive street-dancing fake Little Prince, is also wonderful.
Clearly put together with a lot of love, this is stylish and sophisticated fare that packs a lot within its 80 minutes but simultaneously ends too abruptly, and the play’s darker nuances are elided by fanciful whimsy. Like Pwdin himself, perhaps, Petula’s persuasive profundity feels untethered to the world, as if his interplanetary adventure is missing an act: the beginning suggests the start of something epic, but it all comes back down to earth too soon.