Amphibious ambiguous

The new spectacle from James Thierée and Compagnie du Hanneton is riveting, baffling, charming and utter nonsense. The Toad Knew, and that makes one.

Find out what The Toad Knew at Sadlers Wells

Over 90 minutes Thierée and his ensemble play, bicker and combat each other and their surroundings. All dusty pianos, hanging metal structures and malleable paving slabs, the set is as much an active participant and living entity as the performers.

The Toad Knew eschews easy labelling: part circus, part movement piece, part character-driven theatre; one thing it certainly does is push boundaries. Even this is physicalised on the stage: as the blood red curtain hoves out of sight like a mighty sail, a box set is revealed, demarcated by carefully lit awnings and gauze. Soon though, as violins and fellow performers are hurled from the stage, the audience realises that the playing space continues offstage and this comes as something of a warning for the end of the piece when a titanic toad made of plastic sheeting careens around the stage and out over the audience. So too does Thierée late in the show, aboard a hydraulic arm that seems as much the tail of a scorpion.

The Toad Knew is a series of moments, at once the vignettes of a circus show and the flowering interactions of a narrative. There is no plot to speak of. The characters meander in and out of the space, when they encounter one another a reaction occurs. There seemed to be an ongoing attempt to capture a small pinprick of light: a group of siblings desperately trying to hold onto their innocence? An alien crew looking for an energy source for their spaceship? Both of these and none. In a delightful programme note, Thierée writes: “I do not make theatre to explain what shakes our inner workings, but rather to roam around.”

The action, or perhaps the performance ranged from the minute to the epic. A progression that I was able to track in The Toad Knew was that of day and night. In one particular nighttime episode, Thierée, alone at the front of the stage, distorts his face with his hands in gestures that could be seen from the amphitheatre. There was a mischievous intimacy to this moment, that made me think of what my reaction would be to waking up to a lover pulling these faces in the middle of the night.

To review The Toad Knew rationally would be a dry breakdown of a series of impressive, though unconnected instances. To do justice to Thierée and company, any response to the work should be about the feeling created: something that I have carried with me since the lights went up — it is a world to which I long to return, however I am grateful to have visited even for just a little while.