In Chaplin's footsteps: How James Thiérrée became vaudeville royalty

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James Thiérrée is the scion of vaudeville royalty. Just don't tell him that he's the image of his grandfather...

If anyone ever had good reason to want a nice quiet job in a bank when he grew up, it was the young James Thiérrée. From the age of four, alongside his three-year-old sister, he spent his childhood appearing in theatres across Europe and North America as a piece of luggage that sprouted little legs and ran around.

The show was his parents' own Cirque Imaginaire, a novelty in the late 1970s as one of the first circus shows to do without sawdust and trained animals. Its successor, Le Cirque Invisible, pushed the envelope further, and British theatre-goers of the late 1980s who managed to find their way to the old Thames-side venue The Mermaid may recall – along with memories of an elfin gymnast who turned herself into fantasy monsters by carrying quantities of chairs, and an older man with a dippy Harpo Marx smile who performed opera with his kneecaps – an uncommonly pimple-free youth, his long wavy hair flaring out in a halo, soaring about on bungee ropes like the Angel Gabriel. It was almost certainly that performance that gave Peter Greenaway the idea of casting the teenaged Thiérrée as Ariel in his 1991 film Prospero's Books.

James is lumbered with performing ancestry: his dad Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée gave up a career on the classical French stage to develop his musical vaudeville act; his dancer-cum-designer mother Victoria was the third' of Charlie Chaplin's eight children with Oona O'Neill, herself the daughter of the playwright Eugene O'Neill. So, at an early age, he had to decide to do something defiantly ordinary, or seize his genetic fate.

In the vacant tearoom of a smart hotel in the French city of Lyon, where Thiérrée is touring his new one-man show Raoul before bringing it to London, he is, by his own admission, wiped out with exhaustion, yet strong physical family traits still shine through. His face echoes his grandfather's fine-boned wolfishness. His dark hair is the same vigorously curly mop, which at the front is prematurely blotched with silver (he turned 37 this year). Even slumped in an armchair, shod in orange trainers, Thiérrée's light frame has the high-tuned look of a body that can do pretty much anything its owner asks of it, be that descending a long ladder by slithering slowly head-first between alternate rungs, or tripping over a non-existent ruck in a carpet, only to bounce straight back up and trip over again. But if you think this sounds like stuff you've seen before, perhaps in a black-and-white silent film, you are only partly there. Thiérrée's medium is an amalgam of live theatre with elements of vaudeville, circus and dance – and you can forget about Cirque du Soleil, too. Those terms hardly begin to describe Thiérrée's celebration of low-tech, high-impact stage design, its extraordinary atmosphere, or the existential questions it lightly touches on.

"I'm still trying to find the rhythm of the new show," he confesses. "Having done three previous shows with a cast of four or five people around me [all these shows have travelled to London in the past 10 years], being alone on stage each night feels hugely different – a liberation in its way, but daunting."

Strictly speaking, Thiérrée isn't alone on stage. Raoul, the fictional hermit whose wordless story this is, makes his first entrance scrambling on to the stage from the stalls as if it's the last ridge of a mountain range he has had to cross to reach his home, a precariously constructed giant tepee of scaffolding poles. Wild-eyed and dishevelled, Raoul may be returning from fighting a war, or fending off global meltdown – we never know. What we do soon discover is that an intruder – an impersonator, even – has stolen his identity and inveigled his way into his hearth and home. To his fury and dismay, Raoul finds himself usurped.

The sleight-of-hand comedy Thiérrée mines from this situation is at once frenetic, unsettling, hilarious and profound. In the hand-to-hand combat that ensues, the audience keeps thinking the invader is about to be unmasked (as indeed, he is, repeatedly), but each time it is Thiérrée's face and body that emerge, raising the outlandish possibility that Raoul/Thiérrée really does have a doppelgänger.

More whimsically, Raoul also entertains various non-human visitors, fantastical creatures fashioned from scrap materials: a crayfish immaculately crafted out of industrial metal tubing; a giant jellyfish in shimmering antique silk; a skeletal wading bird made from frayed string; and, most fantastic of all, a spectral, life-size fabric elephant. You never see wheels or pulleys or a body inside. Part of the beauty of each scuttling or lumbering creature is its seeming self-locomotion.

Thiérrée loves the sense that, exquisite as these objects are, they're the result of someone sitting down with a needle and thread. He's also a stickler for using outmoded theatrical machinery, so no electronics. The movement of the cloth we see in the opening – a vast Gericault-like tableau of swathes of grubby sailcloth – is all controlled with cords and counterweights filled with sand. But why make life so difficult?

"Because the result is warm, and operates on a human scale. It's the same with the props. They're all things picked up in flea markets and salvage yards, with a sense of having lived a life already. You just can't compete with film and computerised imagery, so I deliberately go in the opposite direction." That's why, in a flying sequence near the end of the show, he has the lighting swing round to show the stage hands manipulating the flying crane, with Raoul, oblivious, doing his soaring through a night-sky bit, strapped to the other end. What the audience gets is a layered reality. By showing the mechanics, the routine is doubly interesting, yet the magic remains intact.

While Thiérrée himself takes the credit as set designer – along with lighting design and musical direction – it was his mother he invited to devise and make the creatures; clear evidence, if any were needed, that her son is perfectly at ease picking up the family baton. They are hardly in each other's pockets these days, though: James lives with his girlfriend in Paris, while his parents are based in Burgundy. And given the amount of time they spend on their separate tours (missing each other by a matter of weeks in London, this time round) they see each other rarely.

"People assume it must have been a problem for me, my parents being such a global success and my choosing the same creative line. But just as my father was an actor who taught himself clowning, and my mother a dancer who taught herself other skills, I've also taken bits and pieces from all over. We're all bouncing between different disciplines and I've perhaps moved further away from circus than they have. My only responsibility is to the audience, in taking them to a place in their heads where they don't feel quite secure. It's tempting to rely on rewards for comic effects, because that's immediately gratifying. But Raoul isn't meant to be pure comedy. I try to think of it as a moving sculpture, with comic moments." That said, some of the funniest at Lyon's vast Maison de la Danse passed so solemnly that my yelps of mirth had to be muffled, if only out of politeness. "Oh, that's typical French," Thiérrée quips. "They think it's terribly serious as I used the Schubert quintet on a loop earlier on, and they didn't feel they'd been given licence to laugh."

Be that as it may, the moment involved Thiérrée's character slithering stealthily down a scaffolding pole with extreme control, then bouncing vigorously on his backside when he reached the bottom, as if having fallen from a great height. Isn't that the very area of sly humour, based on subverting expectation and undermining physical laws, that his grandfather traded in as a performer?

There is a faintly hollow sense of victory in getting Thiérrée to admit that, yes, if you must, some of what he does could be seen as Chaplinesque. He is, after all, entitled as an artist to carve out his own path, not to have to retread the tracks left by a man he can barely remember. But then, as Thiérrée properly points out, Charlie may not have been the first to do those Chaplinesque gags either. He, too, was working within a genre, applying his skills to standard vaudeville tropes. Tradition, as Thiérrée describes it, "is like a strong wind at your back. You don't necessarily pay it attention, you just feel it."

I ask him, as a final throw, whether he intends his curtain calls as a tidbit tossed to fans who have come hoping to witness some directly channelled Charlie-isms. It is indeed a delicious moment when Thiérrée comes bowling on like a blown leaf, running and twirling in tiny irregular steps as if imminently about to trip over both feet, at once delighted and a touch affronted to see how many people have been out there watching him all along. And it does come across as a truly Chaplin moment.

Thiérrée's brow darkens. "Did it really look like I meant to do that? Then I must look again at those curtain calls. That was me just having fun and messing about. I really don't want anyone to think I'm making a reference. I don't want people to think that at all."

'Raoul' is at the Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891, www.barbican.org.uk) from Tuesday to 24 October. Ticket offer: £10 off the top two priced tickets for performances from 13-18 Oct inclusive (no performance on 15 Oct). If calling quote Independent on Sunday offer; online, enter promotional code 11109

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