Raoul @ Barbican, London

performed by
James ThierreeJames Thierree grew up in the circus, literally.

He spent his formative years performing and travelling on both sides of the Atlantic and went on to perform as Ariel in Peter Greenaways film Prospero’s Books.

The grandson of Charlie Chaplin and the son of the great clown Jean-Baptiste Thierree, he is also the creator and performer of elegant, enigmatic and energetic physical theatre.
His new work, Raoul, is a perfectly charming piece that does not easily fit into any one category.

It begins with a rag-clad character, the eponymous Raoul, finding someone equally rag-clad living in his home. Thierree is cast as both the original and the invader (whichever way round that might be). In order to achieve this he performs a series of disappearing and appearing acts as a battle for identity and territory is set in motion.

Raoul is at once theatre, circus, dance, mime and slapstick. Thierree is able to exercise his physical capabilities in dream-like scenarios: he mimics the motions of a spinning top, he mimes riding a horse, he replicates the mischief of a monkey or the grace of a ballet dancer; each he invests with a streak of melancholy. He seems to split himself physically, so that a leg is suddenly recalcitrant and elbows are a nuisance. He weaves his way down the rungs of a giant ladder and thrashes himself against the walls of his wooden shack in frustration. The energy of his performance is remarkable and ceaseless.

There are similar pleasures to be derived from the set and the props. The sweeping sheets that open the show hang in the background and then billow outwardsm, consuming the debris of his shifting, disintegrating home. The props are a visual treat; a gramophone, a colander, a sleeping bag: each is used for its full comic effect.

There is an otherworldly vein to the piece; there are ghostly apparitions, fossilized birds, a jellyfish, a life-sized elephant soft as cotton wool – all drifting across the stage. Despite all the magic, much is made of the exposure of the illusions as mere theatre; the sandbags are exposed and the technicians make frequent cameos. They are even visible in the final magic moments as Raoul ‘flies’ and there is a thrill in this disclosure. However, there are other moments when the audience is truly duped by Thierree and can revel in the trickery and mystery.

Unfortunately, for all its many delights, the production is less than the sum of its parts. The narrative, the substance of the story, soon dissolves. All that’s left is Thierrees charisma, which for many might not be enough sustenance for a whole show. What resonates is the freedom of spirit and imagination displayed. In these restricted and tightened times, seeing someone have so much fun with the fruits of their imagination is a real inspiration.

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