James Thiérrée in The Toad Knew
James Thiérrée in The Toad Knew
© Richard Haughton

Characters emerge from and blend into the curtain, bodies meld into one another and the very set seems to take on a life of its own. Welcome to the beautifully weird and undeniably wonderful word of James Thiérrée.

Thiérrée comes from an impeccable theatrical pedigree – his great-grandfather was Eugene O'Neill and his grandfather was Charlie Chaplin – and he grew up in the circus, the son of two legendary French performers (apparently the first time he saw the inside of a school room was at the age of 12). The Toad Knew, his new show for his Compagnie du Hanneton is a spellbinding creation, and one of the most magical things I've seen in a theatre in a very long time.

The set resembles that of a Gothic fairytale – think Snow White or Tale of Tales – and the various props all seem to come to life like puppets. This is a world where the curtain goes down instead of up, and where even the lights seem to become participants in the drama, changing colour and reforming to evoke a part of the action. A piano petulantly plays itself and kitchen utensils appear and disappear from who knows where. Against this constantly shifting, utterly magical backdrop, six characters act out their bizarre yet engaging world. This is part theatre piece, part circus, part comedy, part ballet.

Thiérrée's achievement is to produce a piece that on the one hand is spectacularly ebullient and on the other seems to say something profound about human relationships. The two main characters – Thiérrée himself and the dazzling Valérie Doucet – have the body language of a brother and sister, and they either josh with or spar off one another like rough-and-tumble Capoeira dancers. The narrative is suggestive rather than prescriptive, and there's an extent to which you can take what you like from it, but to me there was a suggestion of folk rallying together to face several threats - including the Toad itself, which only appears in the last few minutes.

However you could choose to ignore this, concentrate on the visual, and still have a wonderful evening. Thiérrée himself is a master of slapstick – shades of his grandfather, perhaps – and he finds deep reserves of comedy in his own body, be it his floppy hair, his unaccountably heavy coat or the violin that sticks to his hands. He also creates a world where there is magic in ordinary things like a staircase or a pile of plates, and the audience was completely caught up in his spell, beautiful to look at and completely engrossing. Several times I found myself laughing and I scarcely knew why.

If this was on the Fringe it would be called physical theatre, but it's more like physical poetry. It's totally in keeping with Fergus Linehan's barrier-breaking approach to the EIF's different genres, and it's an utter delight. It's only here for four more nights: rush to get a ticket while you still can.

The Toad Knew runs at the King's Theatre until 28 August.

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