Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; March 25, 2014Charlotte Kasner

James Thiérrée's 'Tabac Rouge'.  Photo © Richard Haughton 1

James Thiérrée’s ‘Tabac Rouge’.
Photo © Richard Haughton 1

Be warned: if “Tabac Rouge” conjures up a vision of a cosy French kiosk, perhaps a cousin of Café Rouge, then this show will come as a bit of a shock. There’s no warming, cassoulet-like comfort here. James Thiérrée and the Compagnie de Hanneton have instead created a dystopian, steam punk world, inhabited by strange but flexible creatures who have an obsession with electricity.

Part Dr Coppélius, part Dr Who (BBC please note if Peter Capaldi ever gets fed up), Thiérrée’s character masterminds it all from his castored armchair as he puffs on his cigarette and occasionally sets fire to pieces of paper that have been generated from a very noisy dot matrix printer attached to the sort of dummy keyboard that the late Steve Race used to play.

There are physical gags aplenty and, although the performers are clearly dance-trained, it owes more to a European clowning tradition than any other form. The set (and crew) are as much a part of the work as the performers, with impressive flying that must have taken a great deal of time and study to perfect, and execution of moves so smooth that it may as well have been subtitled “Courtesy of the Marvellously Fluid and Shiny Brass Castor Company”.

Upon entering the auditorium, the audience are faced with a stripped stage with lighting bars flown in at various elevations as if for a get in. Wires dangle from the top of the proscenium arch. Lights flash on and off. Once everyone is settled, the lighting bars fly in and out until eventually, one realises that there are bodies lying across the top, sloth-like and seemingly content to be riding up and down with no visible means of attachment.

Just as the tension evinced by the possibility that they might at any minute plummet from a great height wears off, the bars fly into their final position and the performers slide off to reveal a large flat made of metal bars and partly panelled in splotched, reflective sheets. It is hinged from two supports and swivels like a vast, rusty dining table cum cheval mirror, enabling performers to climb the bars on the side that is unpanelled.

A frantic hammering heralds the arrival of Thiérrée with the predictable comedy gag of him struggling to get through the bolted door, then (“typical shabby Nazi trick, Wilson”) walking round the side. Some of the gags are knowingly self-deprecating. I particularly liked the man who, having handed a piece of paper to Thiérrée, mimics the sheet as it is crumpled and then unfolded but ends up with egg on his face as Thiérrée shreds it to pieces. Mention must also be made of the stagehand who calmly climbed the set to secure a line, just as nonchalantly descended and strolled off. He didn’t have a harness either – no nanny state here!

At the end, the panels are removed one by one and suspended to dangle like a mobile in a giant’s nursery whilst the flat revolves higher and higher as it is flown out.

Compagnie du Hanneton in 'Tabac Rouge'.  Photo © Richard Haughton 3

Compagnie du Hanneton in ‘Tabac Rouge’.
Photo © Richard Haughton 3

It is not just the set that glides across the stage at remarkable speed; performers, supine and prone, whizz past like greased eels and mould themselves to chairs (castored of course) to scuttle like bizarre crabs, legs bicycling in the air and arms and hands paddling at floor level to assist propulsion. Every so often, the cast emit odd and sinister vocalisations, sometimes individually, sometimes in a distorted Greek chorus. With no narrative, it is left up to the viewer to decide whether they are minions of Thiérrée or merely irritants, for he certainly did not seem to want to be bothered by them. The performers look filleted for surely bones would get in the way of such contortions? Sometimes they sidle up to each other on a truck on which is placed the aforementioned printer and keyboard, a large, long desk and two shaded lamps. The lighting level is low and gaslight-like but with an orange/yellow tinge that suggests a less than cosy sitting room at night.

The musical track is the by now familiar mix of 19th-century opera, baroque and classical music and electronic hums and buzzes. Indeed the awareness of electricity is ever-present, at one stage being used to suggest defibrillation (don’t try this at home – they mean what they say when they say stand clear!).

At ninety minutes plus, “Tabac Rouge” is about half an hour too long and would disappoint anyone expecting a dance work. Even the incredibly skilful execution begins to pall after a while, and the feeling that the piece was somehow an in-joke to which the audience were not always privy, meant that the attention wandered and prompted restlessness.