Creator: James Thierree
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
A solitary figure who enjoys reading, a petit wild child and a sprite flitting above the stage. No, this isn’t The Tempest but the surreal world of The Toad Knew. The production is close to a one-man show with James Thierree as writer, composer and set designer – he even contributed to the lighting.
From the opening there is a sense of a world turned up side down. The curtain sinks rather than rises, the lighting for the set is, initially at least, at floor level and a staircase builds itself. The set is a ramshackle Heath Robinson style mad scientist’s laboratory. A sprite-like creature lives among a bizarre series of lights that hang over the stage and when she descends chaos occurs. A scientist conducts experiments involving a water tank that occasionally alters the lights and causes spitting and popping sound effects. A feral young girl, possibly the scientist’s daughter, interrupts with a game of twister so elaborate the duo end up impossibly entwined while assistants help or hinder the experiments and an observer hangs around the fringes offering obscure directions and singing songs.
The difficulty in identifying a consistent tone for The Toad Knew creates a sense of unease for the audience. One is unsure whether it is polite to laugh at the routines or if they are intended to have a level of profundity that is not immediately apparent.
The routines are relatively straightforward slapstick. Plates miraculously multiply leaving the characters struggling to carry their load and a character relieves himself in the experiment tank. These all seem intended to raise a laugh but this response is at odds with the languid, dreamlike atmosphere that is created Thierree.
There is a bit of a dark edge to the humour as limbs and scalps are casually pulled free and discarded. The subdued lighting by Thierree and Alex Hardellet along with the overall sense of events getting out of control creates an edgy mood that is not conducive to humour. The laughter has a desperate edge as if the audience is not certain whether it is the appropriate response.
There is nothing wrong with the comic routines; they are fine examples of the slapstick art. But in-between the routines there are long stretches where very little happens so that the giddy momentum that would make it impossible for the audience not to laugh never builds. There are some excellent displays of acrobatics but as it is so hard to link them to a narrative structure they start to seem self-indulgent.
The Toad Knew runs for ninety minutes, which seems excessive for a show in which relatively little happens. Reducing the running time or better yet giving the audience a clearer idea of the concept and direction of the play might have produced a stronger show.
Runs until 11 May 2017 | Image: Richard Haughton