I know this place – but I don’t: The Toad Knew by James Thierrée and Compagnie du Hanneton

Sadler’s Wells, London
May 3, 2017

Charlotte Kasner

The marvellous James Thierrée spent the best part of the year, literally and figuratively constructing The Toad Knew. After six months of theatrical engineering, he then wove the performers’ bodies into the set and spent six months on the road perfecting it.

A thin, textured curtain replaces the tabs in the rich red of oxygenated blood. A jazz singer (the least successful part of the show), trails a maroon cloak behind her and grasps the curtain, pulling it down to reveal the world within.

Thierrée descends from the grid on a flimsy metal staircase that emerges step by step to take his weight, finally to spiral in a helix to which he gives life using his own body. Four more performers provide the DNA that make the messages between him and the set.

James Thierrée (left) and Compagnie du Hanneton in The Toad KnewPhoto Hugues Anhès
James Thierrée (left) and Compagnie du Hanneton in The Toad Knew
Photo Hugues Anhès

Above everyone is a pan of light surrounded by rhomboid satellites that tilt and sway, screeching in their fixings, now red, now emerald, now blue, now gold. First, they illuminate, then they threaten. They become eyes, watching over all, their light flickering off the silver and gold of the cyclorama. A demented piano plays itself, condescending occasionally to allow a human to think that they can also manipulate the dusty ivories.

Pure, European clowning makes the audience giggle as a rude violin refuses to allow performer to get a word in edgeways then ‘sticks’ to Thierrée until his demented contortions result in it being flung into the wings.

There is a cool, green pool fuming with brimstone. Performers splash, paddle. One rolls over all of a sudden with a great splash then slimes off, barking like a seal. Thierrée crosses it in a red bucket which pops up like a cork under pressure as his feet free it from the depths.

Ah, Thierrée’s feet. They speak. Eloquently. So do his legs. They have an entire conversation with other people while the rest of his body carries on reading. His hands become entire, independent beings. They converse. They flip back an unruly lock of hair. They argue with each other. They have an argument with someone else’s hands. It’s not clear who wins.

A vast tray is brought on. It seems to spawn smaller plates. Many smaller plates. They are stacked. Performers stagger around with stacks of them. Two are stuck to stick and pretend that they belong to a Chinese juggler. Then their cousins come on. Sewn onto a yellow coat, they make a human pangolin.

A robot comes on. It is secured. It is not painting cars or manipulating toxic waste. It is carrying a light. Performers embrace its arm. They are swung round on their own personal fairground ride. It reaches to the flies, it dips, it swings, it rotates. The light is captured. game over. It is led off to sleep until the next time.

The lights coalesce. They form an inverted lotus. The helix takes Thierrée away. The blood red curtain hides the world away. Until the next time.

Marvellous, inventive theatre. Do go.