The Toad Knew is a steampunk dreamlike fantasia, a series of circus and dance routines tenuously connected by aesthetic tendons. The red curtain across the front of the stage flutters and waves like a living thing, and is pull offstage like a parade of stiltwalkers. It doesn’t move like a stage curtains normally can, and the same velvety texture extends to the draped clothing of Mariama who sings soulful, reverby half-time music hall tunes.
While it has Beckettian notes in the abstract, existential clowning and the faded, tired costuming of its rundown music hall characters, The Toad Knew also has a distinct science fiction flavour, with a TARDIS-like illuminated central invention that has a life of its own, half understood by the mad professor/artist portrayed by James Thiérrée. Half-way through the piece it gives birth to a River Tam-like ghost in the machine.
In the opening moments, however, the stagecraft itself is the centre of attention. With some of the most sophisticated tricks out there, it nevertheless holds on to a human quality – like a circus act itself which stays relatable to human physicality, adding mastery and magic in just the right quantities. A snake of metal raises up from a haphazard coil on the stage floor, vertebrae by vertebrae becoming a spiral staircase – each stair locking into place just in time for Thiérrée to descend it. Later it becomes a whirling climbing frame for three performers at a time.
Apart from a couple of key moments however, the dance/physical routines largely hold themselves apart from the painstakingly inventive set. They seem a little small in the King’s Theatre, although the unshowy blink-and-you’ll-miss-them contortions from handstand specialist Valérie Doucet are a standout component. There is no question – even coming to the piece completely new to his work – that Thiérrée is at home as the actor-manager, and his incredibly talented company have a distinct role of their own. The main man has several solo routines, whilst the rest of company largely collaborate on routines with him or each other. This is perfectly understandable for an exceptional circus performer (with an incredible pedigree, if you go in for that kind of thing, being a grandson of Charlie Chaplin), but it is unfortunate that this trickles down into the relationships of the roles they play as well.
There is something fairytale and undeniably French being explored in these decisions: Yann Nédélec and Samuel Duterte play stooges and servants to Thiérrée’s mad, distracted, professor magician, with the very funny Nédélec almost in a kind of Igor role. Doucet’s role as Thiérrée’s sister is far less precise than her movement – she could as well be a daughter or a lover – and when Thi Mai Nguyen appears as the machine-spirit, their similar size, hair, physique and movement, alongside deliberate mirroring, collapse the two characters together in a way that feels dismissive particularly of whatever relationship has been built up between Thiérrée and Doucet.
Thiérrée’s solo routine with a massive fur fringed coat filled me with glee, an ensemble multiplying plates routine was incredible fun, that spiral staircase is hard to beat, and a final theatrical coup truly achieves the mad slow motion dreamstate that the whole explores. Yet when meaning is as fractured and stage action so full of possibility as it is here, it feels odd to have a very traditional, hierarchical set of relationships at its heart.