James Thierrée/Compagnie du Hanneton: The Toad Knew
Sadlers Wells Theatre, London
From the moment the red velvet curtain falls, when it should rise, you know to expect the unexpected. And James Thierrée (pictured), who was born into a circus, doesn’t disappoint. In fact, Thierrée’s great grandfather was Charlie Chaplin, and Chaplin’s ghost is never far removed from the fantasia that unfolds.
Filled with surprises, unexpected juxtapositions and non-sequiturs, theatre – or is this a circus? – doesn’t get more surreal than this.
On a set that could have been designed by Caractacus Potts, full of whirring, clanking machines which seem to possess a life of their own, Thierrée presents a netherworld of magic and illusion. The cast (of just six) seems to be performing under some kind of hex, while a staircase rises and descends of its own volition and instruments play themselves manically. Even the lights, which hover above the stage like an alien colony, play their own part, reflecting in a still, portentous pool on stage. A pool which could yet turn out to be a watery grave, or just a pool.
There is plenty of Chapilnesque slapstick – including a violin which attaches itself to Thierrée’s arm and won’t shut up – and the occasional moment of head-spinning horror reminiscent of The Exorcist. Meanwhile, Ofelie Crispin, who was “birthed” from the red velvet curtain, prowls the stage like a demented Edith Piaf, singing in a dislocated voice that sounds as though it is coming from someone and somewhere else entirely.
In another (seeming) reference to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, dancer Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim unsettles as she “pops” all over the place, the extraordinary contraction of her muscles giving every impression that there is someone else inside her desperate to get out.
As indeed, by this stage, were one or two members of the audience who shuffled past me, nonplussed. Clearly they came expecting some form of enlightenment, which is to miss the point entirely. Personally I’ve no idea what exactly the Toad knew, but as soon as I stopped trying to make sense of it all, it all suddenly made a lot more sense.
There is no narrative to explain the relationship between Thierrée who, notwithstanding his undoubted brilliance, manages to look a tad too pleased with himself throughout, and his sidekick, Herve Lassince, who brings muscularity and definition to an otherwise nebulous unreality.
The Toad Knew deals instead in miracles and wonders. So what if the Toad, a rather underwhelming amphibian that appears to have been stitched together at the last minute from parachute silk, failed to impress as he greedily gobbled up the dramatis personae? From the moment the curtain fell, to the moment when it rose again at the end, a singular moment of logic, I was swept away on a cloud of chimeric contentment.
The Toad seems to be a myth created to explain a legend that no one, barring Thierrée himself, has yet had the power to imagine. Extraordinary in so many ways.