Gags and gimcracks

`Le Cercle Invisible' is clever, skilful and beguiling - for a while. But can it maintain an audience's interest without a narrative thread? By Louise Levene
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The Independent Culture
`Has it finished yet?'' Enjoyment of any piece of theatre is seldom enhanced by a five-year-old at one's side constantly asking when his torment will end, but the child in question did have a point. Le Cercle Invisible is invariably described as ``mesmerising'' but, as anyone who has ever wasted a hypnotist's time will testify, we are not all ideal subjects for enchantment.

Jean Baptiste Thieree and Victoria Chaplin have been performing their two-person mix of circus, magic and illusion since 1971 and many of the routines survive unchanged. Jean Baptiste wears outrageous suits, does a bit of basic table-top magic and cracks various visual gags while Chaplin's beautiful youngest daughter (now 47) shows off her circus skills and works the illusions. These are accomplished with a bizarre wardrobe of cunningly reversible garments that can be transformed from farthingale to horse at a moment's notice. Her opening stunt is performed with a cone-like Lurex hoop dress in which she rolls about the stage like a child's wobbly toy. If this sounds familiar, it may well be because the costume has been part of the show for some years now.

Bits of it are very clever, even on second viewing. At one point, Thieree rushes on-stage wearing a prosthetic upper half that enables him to appear to be holding his own head loosely wrapped in newspaper; later he stands centre-stage in a soppy baroque opera costume. Suddenly the puppet faces on his knees begin to mime Bizet's Pearl Fishers as he pulls the strings that work their mouths. What do you think of it so far?

Illusions like these have their place. A fringe comedian once used to specialise in using a set of four linked dummies to impersonate the Jackson Five's dance routines, ENO's Love for Three Oranges featured a man being eaten by his crocodile suit, Birmingham Royal Ballet's Far from the Madding Crowd uses a bicycle with galloping horse's legs attached to its wheels. In the context of a bigger idea, such tricks are surprising and captivating, but to watch these slick whimsies for two hours without any narrative thread is rather like flicking through a catalogue of available theatrical effects. Any of them might make perfect sense in a pantomime or comic opera but, like a pizza composed entirely of capers, they are indigestible on their own.

The paying public seemed to have an appetite for it and many people confess to going time and time again, beguiled by the old-fashioned mixture of sight gags and wonderment. Mind you, an audience that is happy to applaud deliriously simply because some poultry has waddled on-stage is probably beyond help.

Tradition has it that children adore this sort of thing. Many clearly do. But two hours is an extremely long time with no story to hold their attention and my normally well-behaved guinea pig - a veteran of numerous three-act ballets - spent the last 20 minutes asleep on the floor.

`Le Cercle Invisible', Mermaid Theatre, London EC4 to 12 Jan (0171-236 2211)