Review: The Toad Knew @ The Lowry, Salford

It’s hard to express exactly what it is that works so brilliantly about James Thierrée’s latest offering, but for the second time in less than a year, I exited the theatre feeling dazzled and bewildered by the mysterious and beautiful artistic freedom of The Toad Knew.

To say Thierrée comes from strong theatrical heritage is to put things mildly – the grandson of Charlie Chaplin on one side, the great-grandson of Eugene O’Neill on the other – he was brought up in the circus, performing from the age of four.

The result is an entertainer who understands theatre so completely that he can create a show with no evident purpose, a show which melts continuously between dance, music, physical theatre, slapstick and contortion, and yet delights its audience from the first second until the last.

The Toad Knew thrives in the unexpected; the curtain falls at the beginning and rises at the end and for the 90 minutes in between, like a hallucinatory slumber, the audience is left with no notion of what might be coming next.

INNOCENCE: There is a wonderful simplicity to the plot

The set is simply breathtaking – appearing to build itself in the opening sequence and constantly transforming throughout the piece as if it were as alive as the characters that inhabit it.

The aesthetic draws from a tradition that takes in the Grimm fairy-tales, the renaissance-style films of Peter Greenaway and the silent comedies of his own grandfather, Chaplin, resulting in a seductive, darkly comic world of intrigue and uncertainty.

The show is difficult to describe – and as such this review is a difficult one to write – as there is very little plot in the conventional sense of the word, but rather a series of interwoven vignettes played out between Thierrée and his five co-performers.

There is a wonderful innocence and simplicity to much of the play – a sequence in which the characters struggle to clear away a magically multiplying set of silver plates has the children in the audience laughing as hysterically as the adults, and there is something entirely universal about the moments of clownery.

The action is accompanied perfectly by the seductive tones of Ofélie Crispin, a kind of modern muse for Thierrée’s intoxicating and mythic fantasy world, her voice soaring around the auditorium and underscoring the quieter moments of filial love and affection.

THE LOWRY: The production has hit Salford

The dancing, too, is a marvel to behold throughout – from Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim’s mind-bending contortion to Thi Mai Nguyen’s astonishing aerial acrobatics to a final sequence which sees Thierrée fly high over the audience on an oddly-beautiful Rube Goldberg-like contraption – it combines form and quality in a way rarely achieved in modern theatre.

In his Director’s Note, Thierrée explains: “In this play, there are tiny mysteries that will swallow up big mysteries: that is clear.”

This is the point of his work. Like an entrancing piece of classical music, the plot and inspiration are secondary to the play’s transient beauty and what that means to each individual member of the audience.

Performed or conceived by almost anyone else, the show may easily have strayed into irritating indulgence and pretention, but under Thierrée’s masterful guidance it was instead an expression of indescribable release, imagination and illusion.

The Toad was right. Why? I don’t know. 

*The Toad Knew is playing at The Lowry, Salford until Thursday, 11 May.

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