Raoul, Théâtre de la Ville, Paris

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There was never any danger this show would fail to sell out. Three wildly successful shows have built James Thierrée a devoted Parisian following and the icy pavement was packed with hopefuls queuing for last-minute tickets. The real question was whether his first one-man show would rely on tried and tested effects or take new risks to hold our attention solo for 90 minutes.

In the event Thierrée chose the riskier option – and reaped commensurate rewards. What felt tentative in his last show – the emotional dimension overshadowed by the acrobatic feats – is now fleshed out, mature and deeply satisfying. Imagine a mimed soliloquy about identity and isolation that weaves a dreamy, enigmatic universe, magical, frightening and funny by turns. Still hugely athletic, it’s less of a physical tour de force and his hallmark props are now supporters rather than co-stars.

The solitary hero is a Robinson Crusoe figure, plunging in darkness into a billowing universe that conjures up avenging icebergs and tented caverns. Jérôme Sabre’s clever lighting captures the cold spectres of uncertainty, the little man in an unknown universe forced back on to his own wits. And then come the first of many surprises – an island cabin, a startled double writing
at his desk, a clever trompe l’oeil duel between identical actors, a knockout blow delivered by a watering can. Splendid mythical beasties (designed by his mother, Victoria Thierrée Chaplin) silently undulate, far more at home in the natural world. I detected veiled references to environmental meltdown, but maybe I had Copenhagen on my mind.

This production gently lays bare the vulnerability and resilience of the human condition. It splices Disneyesque ingenuity – everyday objects springing wittily and empathetically to life – with Lear-like silent apocalyptic railing at the hostility of fate. Even the hut rattles its timbers in shared loneliness as the phantoms of the imagination take hold. But despair is deftly balanced with Promethean glories. Evolution flashes before our eyes as man meets violin, treats it as a fellow animal and, suddenly, conjures up the transfiguring beauty of Purcell’s music and a watching public. Intimate, profound and intensely poetic. ()

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