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La Veillée des Abysses

James Thiérrée
Compagnie du Hanneton
Peacock Theatre, London
(2005)

Production photo

What holds this fantasia of a show together? Described by its creator, James Thierree, as an "optimistic shipwreck", it opens and ends with a tempest. In the meantime, six souls are stranded in an evanescent world that could be a disused theatre, a fairytale castle in the sky, a surrealist's waking dream, or a kind of half-forgotten attic of the imagination cluttered with old furniture and props.

Circus, physical and dance - La Veillée des Abysses makes use of the lot. Flickering from happiness to despair, it conjures a place with its own rituals, rules and logic, where the performers play a game of make-believe with the single-minded absorption of children delving into a dressing up box. Stories - of exile, belonging and love - start to surface.

This is the kind of improbable, magical show that gets the audience's imagination pumping, gets us high on our own wild flights of fancy as well as those of the performers. By the time a sofa was swallowing people up and spitting them out again, my disbelief wasn't just suspended, it had slipped its moorings.

There are soaring moments, as when the stage is transformed into the rigging of a ship at the mercy of the waves, yet throughout Thierree stays alert to small details and discovers amusement in them. The delicate precision of the physical comedy here is bliss to watch. When a dancer's body suddenly goes as stiff as an ironing board, he nonchalantly tucked under someone's arm and carried offstage.

The piece unrolls seamlessly. It also takes in some impressive solo turns: a pianist (played by the
sublimely funny Uma Ysamat) who tears her clothes off with abandon and dismantles her instrument, as if she's about to ravish it; a capoeira dancer (Thiago Martins) spinning in time to Nina Simone's rendition of Lilac Wine embodies the dizzying ache of love.

As the cast fool around, dance, bend, tumble, sing and fly, the sheer pleasure of the show keeps washing over you like warm surf. Every once in a while one of the performers breaks away and stands at a podium to deliver a lecture on what the piece might be about, only to find they're struck dumb. Of course, the last thing this company needs are words: we're already beguiled. Yes, Thiérrée is showing us that all of life's a circus, but more than that, he's shaking new life into the form he's working in, and he makes circus feel like something awfully close to heaven.

"La Veillée des Abysses" runs until 15th October

Reviewer: Maxie Szalwinska