THE TOAD KNEW
Review by Mark Brown
The renowned, Swiss-born circus theatre maker James Thiérrée has an exceptional artistic pedigree. The grandson of Charlie Chaplin, his parents, Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée and (Chaplin’s daughter) Victoria, were the founders of a series of leading French circus companies.
This heritage is writ large in The Toad Knew, the show which Thiérrée’s Compagnie du Hanneton has brought to the Edinburgh International Festival.
The piece is performed by a cast of six, including Thiérrée, who is also the show’s creator, stage designer and musical composer. It takes place in an extraordinary netherworld of strangely animalistic machines, steaming water and a sinister pianola.
Thiérrée’s fantasia has a decidedly Gallic flavour. The surrealism of André Breton combines with the cartoonish, post-apocalyptic vision of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro‘s bleakly comic film Delicatessen and the acrobatics of that most French of art forms cirque nouveau.
The show seems to emanate from a surreal dream world of buried fears and suppressed desires. At one moment, a red-hooded woman transforms into a lizard with illuminated eyes. At another, a woman who is, seemingly, sitting with her back to us, sweeps her hair back over her face, revealing that she has been facing us all along.
Such illusions occur often in a show that interlaces vibrant imagery with tremendously accomplished physical performance. The acrobatics of the piece range from the elegiac aerial work of Thi Mai Nguyen to the improbably gorgeous cartwheels of Valérie Doucet.
Thiérrée, who bears a striking physical resemblance to his famous grandfather, also shares Chaplin’s tremendous skill in physical comedy. In one lovely set piece, he mimes numerous, and futile, attempts to move his diminutive sidekick Yann Nédélec. In another, decidedly Chaplinesque routine, Thiérrée comically purloins a coat from fellow performer Samuel Dutertre, before creating the illusion of his hand entering a pocket of the garment, only to re-emerge in physically impossible places.
The bringing together of such simple, timeless pleasures of popular entertainment with Thiérrée’s bizarre visual imagination and his vivid, often emotive music is masterful. These elements are accompanied wonderfully by the soulful, plaintive singing of Sierra Leonean performer Mariama and the astonishing work of Compagnie du Hanneton’s technical team (who operate an amazing array of mechanical props, lights and aerial equipment).
A genuinely unique theatrical experience, it is little wonder that the Edinburgh premiere of Thiérrée’s beautiful oddity was cheered to the rafters.
Until August 28. eif.co.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on August 25, 2016
© Mark Brown