Had this surreal mix of silent comedy and physical theatre ended after half an hour, I would have been sorely disappointed; had it finished half an hour early, I would have been a much happier man. Rarely have I seen a show that starts with such promise, end on such a long, sustained, single – and very flat – note. It’s as if every good idea was thrust upfront in the hope that the show would coast to the end on the feeling of goodwill, thus created.
For anyone not yet in the know, James Thierrée is the grandson of Charlie Chaplin (and also the great-grandson of the playwright, Eugene O’Neill). Chaplin’s daughter, Victoria, and her husband, Jean-Baptiste Thierrée, ran small touring circuses and young James, aged four, made his stage debut as a walking suitcase in Jean-Baptiste’s clown/magician act.
Unsurprisingly, circus arts pervade the theatre of Thierrée’s’ Compagnie du Hanneton (of which, The Toad Knew is the sixth work). Originally entitled La grenouille avait raison, Thierrée has – unusually – given it an English title for these London shows: but, why the frog has become a toad remains a mystery, although there are perhaps other unsavoury connotations to The Frog Knew in these days of populism and Brexit, which are best avoided.
With his mop of curly, grey/white hair, there is something strikingly reminiscent of Chaplin in Thierrée’s appearance – a common bond amongst the Chaplin grandchildren; and, a similarity that is exaggerated further by Thierrée sharing his grandfather’s peculiar whimsical style of silent, slapstick comedy. One small episode of donning an overcoat, by apparently putting his arms through the sleeves, only for them to continually appear somewhere else, through the coat, was pure Chaplin. It is also worthy of note that Thierrée possesses impressive popping and locking hip hop dance skills, which we wait to the stage-managed curtain call to see in their full glory.
Victoria Thierrée is responsible for the ‘visual creations’ and it is the eclectic staging that grabs one’s attention from the get-go. A ubiquitous red velvet curtain initially closes off the fourth wall but is whisked away to reveal a cavernous burrow: perhaps a collectors’ den, an absent-minded inventor’s studio or a junk yard. An eclectic mix of artefacts on the stage is offset by a complicated cats’ cradle of wires and lights, above it, like dozens of miniature alien space ships, surrounding a platform (or a mother lightship). A metal spiral staircase descends to add to the airborne paraphernalia and, as Thierrée ascends the circling steps; his weight pushes each miniature platform into place with a click and an unsettling bounce. To the left of the stage there’s an upright self-playing piano; to the right, there’s a platform that – when uncovered – turns out to be a coffin-sized, transparent box full of water and weeds.
The stage thus set with a capacity to both surprise and amuse; it is sad to report that the action, over 90 unbroken minutes, was a journey to nowhere, in a long cabaret of whimsy, aerial circus skills and physical humour. Thierrée made much of his uncontrollable quiff, attempting and failing to toss it back into place and then mock-stapling the hair to his scalp (ouch!). He became a human “weeble-wobble doll” (“weebles wobble but they won’t fall down”), balancing on his shoulder blades, legs crossed in the air, manipulated by ethereal Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim, who – once woken from her slumber over the piano – transcended the piece, like Miss Haversham, in a moth-eaten, disheveled, full-length gown.
Several miniature coups de theatres were surprising. The best – both in terms of trickery and humour – came in a sequence where Thierrée tries, first, to finish a violin solo that refuses to end and, then, to get rid of the violin that sticks to his hand. Another memorable piece of magic came in a sequence of multiplying plates. And, while Bel Hadj Brahim appeared to sit still, facing away from the stage, for some time; she is eventually revealed to have been looking our way, by a simple trick of the hair.
A singer (Ofélie Crispin) wandered around, like a lost soul, dipping in and out of the action, often appearing under a Victorian lamppost, singing an eclectic mix of soulful sounds that, rather like the work, in general, gave up isolated moments of clarity in an otherwise ambiguous experience.
There is no sense of who these people are, or why they are there. Hervé Lassïnce is simply the stooge who enables much of Thierrée’s comedic magic to happen (the other half of the violin act, for example); and Thi Mai Nguyen interlaces occasional acrobatic, aerial skills with being a silent voyeur from the platform above the stage. Though this is often an impressive spectacle, it has little sense of theatre.