The Toad Knew – James Thierrée / Compagnie du Hanneton: Sadler’s Wells, London, 3 May 2017

Wind but no willows

Eye as a kite. James Thierree/Compagnie du Hanneton’s The Toad Knew

There are lots of good things in James Thierrée / Compagnie du Hanneton’s delirious The Toad Knew, yet, despite an excellent cast and some great visuals, it somehow struggles to maintain interest levels.

Set in a steampunk laboratory type-place, all sorts of weird contraptions lurk in the furthest reaches; on one side is a self-playing piano that communicates angrily with humans, on the other a luminous pool of water and from the ceiling an enormous upside-down metal lotus flower that harbours some kind of fairy and which swivels about in every direction. There’s also a self-unfolding circular ladder, a skeletal cherry-picker, a small statue of a lion and lots of props that disappear from view as quickly as they arrive. Surrounded by swathes of gothic drapes it’s all wonderful to look at and you never quite know what something is capable of.

Amid all the mechanical marvels an ungainly team of six wander un-methodically about, obeying irrational rules of etiquette and often getting physically stuck to each other. Everything is (deliberately) a bit skew-iff and claustophobically irritating – the closest analogy I can think of is when you’re a kid on a long car journey and your older sibling keeps jabbing you in the arm with their finger.

James Thierrée is a master of mime and his routines, first with a violin he can’t let go of and then with various characters he gets equally attached to, are funny, annoying and very clever. He also has a mesmerising way of moving at times, switching from robotics to slow-mo in the blink of an eye. His physical conversations with the dynamic judders of Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim are fascinating and he fits well as the cog that everyone else revolves around.

There are some marvellous set-pieces; the plate fiasco was terrific, the way the lotus flower thing followed the dancing fairy like it was an eye was delightfully creepy and the giant dragon/fish that invades the stage at the end was beautiful.

But, despite all of the above, the show sagged badly. There were far too many drawn-out periods of inactivity and the surreal world so successfully created also proved problematic in that it wasn’t filled with anything resembling a narrative (emotional or otherwise) or any kind of subliminal momentum to keep us hanging on to. We were left with episodic sketches that invariably petered out into nothing leaving us wondering what it was all for. The toad knows, apparently, so next time I’ll get him to write the review.

The Toad Knows continues at Sadler’s Wells until 7 May 2017. The Sadler’s Wells website has tickets.

Gerard Davis

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