A delight for all the senses: The Toad Knew

James Thierrée and Compagnie du Hanneton at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
August 24, 2016

David Mead

Some shows simply defy categorisation, and having sat through its 90-minutes and thought about it for several days, I still have no idea what the toad knew, or how, or why, or whether it was important. I do know he or she was right though; it said so in the programme. What I also know is that James Thierrée’s The Toad Knew for Compagnie du Hanneton is a glorious piece of theatre; a feast for the all the senses that will keep you enthralled throughout – whatever your age.

From the moment it opens and the curtain falls, expect the unexpected. Almost immediately a metal spiral staircase grows magically from the stage. There’s a piano that seems to have a mind of its own and that answers back. You think a woman has been sitting with her back to the audience for ages, only for her to sweep away her hood and reveal her face. Things appear and disappear. These and many, many more glorious images come thick and fast in a weird kaleidoscope; all under a ravishing skyscape of strange looking lampshades (that at one point come together magically to make a giant whole) and in a setting including a pond (presumably the home of the toad) that will have any fan of the strange and wonderful purring with delight.

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

Don’t go looking for a narrative, at least one that makes any sense; there isn’t one. In the programme, the show’s creator, scenographer, composer and lead performer Thiérrée (grandson of Charlie Chaplin) writes that The Toad Knew features “tiny mysteries that will swallow up big mysteries …I do not make theatre to explain what shakes our inner workings but rather to roam around.”

That wandering around results in a series of circus, dance and acted scenes that seem to come and go at random, all played out through movement and music alone. If you look for links or even for meaning, you are probably going to be disappointed. Each scene exists on its own and, such is the genius of Thierrée, succeeds on its own. Great clowning moments includes the violin that refuses to be tossed away, the pile of plates that grows and grows, and the linked hands that refuse to unknot. There’s also some impressive aerial work.

A show of mystery and wonder. The audience cheered and cheered; and rightly too.