From the moment the shimmering red crushed velvet curtain drops to the floor and scampers into the wings, you know two things about this show. Firstly, it’s not going to follow any of the usual theatrical conventions. And secondly, it is above all a feast for the eyes.
The humour is first and foremost visual and there are moments – such as when Thierrée’s hands are apparently glued to his violin – that would not be out of place in a silent comedy from the early days of cinema. And this is not surprising – because Thierrée is Charlie Chaplin’s grandson. He is also the son of renowned circus performers Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thierrée (his first appearance was aged four as the legs of a runaway suitcase) and this part of his heritage shines through, too – there is a particularly lyrical moment when he and two other cast members are spin on a revolving spiral staircase.
The staircase is just one of a number of not-so-inanimate objects that Thierrée has created for the show. There is a luminous water tank, a piano that plays itself to give a running commentary on the action and, above all, a sinister central light that drops, swoops and spreads its tentacles above the stage, controlling and sometimes literally electrifying the players beneath.
This is also the “home” of aerialiste Thi Mai Nguyen, first seen suspended upside down high above the stage where Thierrée seems to be working in a laboratory. The jerky movements of Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim (his sister? lover? child? creation?) have echoes of Frankenstein’s monster. Has he created her and indeed the other characters? Or is he just a fellow monster?
While you try to work it all out, Thierrée and his superbly accomplished Compagnie du Hanneton roll out before your eyes a feast of acrobatics, dance, comedy, clowning and mime against a backdrop of music that combines Mozart with Otis Redding and the huskily lustrous voice of Ofélie Crispin. She later turns into a lizard, a man eats a live fish, a giant billowing fish comes on stage to eat the cast. This is a story without a plot, surreal moments strung together as flamboyant visual treats. What’s happening? No idea. Does Thierrée? Not sure about that either. Maybe The Toad Knew.
James Thierrée — The Toad Knew at Sadler’s Wells until 7th May 2017. For more information and tickets please visit the website.