Sombrero, Sadler's Wells, London <img src="" alt="twostar"/>

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The Independent Culture

Philippe Decouflé's Sombrero is full of shadows: real shadows, dancers playing shadows, shadows on film. The illusions go from the polished to the clunky, but the style is pedestrian. Decouflé and his team work away at the images and jokes, ladling on whimsy.

In France, Decouflé is getting on for National Treasure status. He has staged opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics and the Cannes film festival, contributed to the Champs-Élysées parade for the bicentennial of the French revolution, and won awards for his film and stage work.

Sombrero starts with the performers working their way through the audience, waving and calling from the theatre balconies. One couple wear white, with big sombreros. The other pair are dressed in black, their hands and faces blackened, playing shadows.

On stage, the shadows lie at the feet of their partners, echoing their movements, wriggling along the floor to keep up. The mimicry here is thorough but dull.

The lead couple keep breaking into the story of Victor, Victoria and their shadows, told in heavily-accented English, illustrated with old film clips, subtitles, stick-figures projected onto a screen. It's a cutesy, meandering tale, readily broken off, full of word games.

Having introduced the sombrero, Decouflé moves the action to Mexico. His cast strip to bathing costumes, lying around in Patrice Besombes's sunny yellow lighting. A bandit sits in front of a film of himself, staring sweatily into the middle distance.

Decouflé and the set designer Pierre-Jean Verbraeken fill the stage with screens, overlapping or placed at angles. Shadows and film clips cross over. A man with a trailing headdress dances in unison with film of himself. Another faces away from the audience, with a film of his front view projected onto his back. When he strips off, so does his filmed double; when the real man ties a towel around his waist, it shows up the double's nakedness. Some of the screen scenes are illusions. A woman dances, her shadow falling on a screen behind her – except that it is not her own shadow. Another dancer, behind the screen, is echoing her movements. It's a nice idea, but ploddingly worked out.

Sombrero is heavy-handed throughout. Even Decouflé's cleverest inventions are let down by the pacing, or by twee comedy – though these repetitive jokes did seem to go down well with the Sadler's Wells audience.