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The Toad Knew review at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘fascinating yet infuriating’

The Toad Knew at King's Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Hugues Anhes The Toad Knew at King's Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Hugues Anhes
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Surreal to the point of being brilliant, wilfully obscure to the point of being opaque, and playing to creator James Thierree’s strengths to the point of self-indulgence, The Toad Knew is a fascinating yet infuriating hour and a half of circus-based theatrical fun.

Thierree uses illusion – notably a trick spiral staircase – and trapeze work to create a space floating above the main stage. The floating petals of an exploded stained-glass lotus flower are connected by flowing streams of light to a shallow water tank below. Amid the steampunk rawness of a world that appears to be some kind of murky underwater grotto, he is a demented master figure who has to send energy up to mend the flower and bring a wandering spirit (dancer Thi Mai Nguyen) to life.

The whole is revealed and defined by the singer Mariama, who prowls the extremities of the set, huskily intoning a largely wordless song. Contortionist and acrobat Valerie Doucet is Thierree’s lover in the form of a dancing insect, while dancer Yann Nedelec’s burrowing grub is his servant.

The circus skills nestle in the narrative, many passing without pause for breath (literally so in one case). Doucet is particularly well-framed and her double-headed duet with Nguyen a highlight. But Thierree too often allows his own antics to linger. Talented though his crowd-pleasing body articulation and clown skills are, they divert the attention, leaving the whole in limbo between circus and theatre. Almost uniting the two forms, this is clever circus, but murky theatre.

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Valuable addition to narrative circus that focuses too much on its creator