La Veillée des Abysses, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Genius at the bottom of the garden
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The Independent Culture

It takes a peculiar genius to turn theatrical rules on their head and not trip up, but James Thiérrée has genius running through his veins. The opening of his latest elaborately titled and utterly unclassifiable show really shouldn't succeed, but it does. In fact the first five minutes of La Veillée des Abysses - literally, "Night Watch of the Deep" - offers the most intoxicating climax of any piece of theatre I've seen; so thrilling, indeed, that I could barely stay in my seat, despite the climax coming out of nowhere, going nowhere, and threatening the lives of characters we had barely met. The Ice Storm has nothing on this tempestuous struggle: Thiérrée fighting a gale force 10 mounted on stilts (two stepladders), with garden rakes and a scythe wedged between the legs like some warrior steed which, at the height of its ordeal, turns its great metal muzzle as if to look death in the eye. This is The Raft of the Medusa, the storm in King Lear, the Battle of Helms De

It takes a peculiar genius to turn theatrical rules on their head and not trip up, but James Thiérrée has genius running through his veins. The opening of his latest elaborately titled and utterly unclassifiable show really shouldn't succeed, but it does. In fact the first five minutes of La Veillée des Abysses - literally, "Night Watch of the Deep" - offers the most intoxicating climax of any piece of theatre I've seen; so thrilling, indeed, that I could barely stay in my seat, despite the climax coming out of nowhere, going nowhere, and threatening the lives of characters we had barely met. The Ice Storm has nothing on this tempestuous struggle: Thiérrée fighting a gale force 10 mounted on stilts (two stepladders), with garden rakes and a scythe wedged between the legs like some warrior steed which, at the height of its ordeal, turns its great metal muzzle as if to look death in the eye. This is The Raft of the Medusa, the storm in King Lear, the Battle of Helms Deep - courtesy of a few garden tools and a wind machine.

Transforming everyday objects into creatures is a pet theme of Thiérrée's. He did it in his last show, Junebug Symphony, and his parents did it in theirs, the unforgettable Cirque Invisible in the early 1990s, and the Cirque Imaginaire before that. His grandfather did it too - remember him collecting up mountains of chairs in The Rink? Sorry, you didn't know? Thiérrée is the grandson of Charles Chaplin, and it's to his deep credit that he doesn't advertise the fact. Yet nothing can disguise the handsome profile, the lightning limbs, and the innocent romantic air. The boy has his grandpa's genes in spades.

But this is Thiérrée's show and his alone, shared with a handful of scuzzy chums who've stepped straight from a Montmartre bedsit. A rickety piano, a flea-market sofa and other romantic junk bestrew their attic playground. And play is what they do: play at life, play the piano, play games, play at breaking into Paris parks after lock-up time. That's all that happens for the best part of 80 minutes, but I could have watched for hours.

Curiously for a performance with such staying power, it meanders, and occasionally nods off. The show has all the casual pacing of a flat-share - young things sit around doing nothing much, then suddenly one of them (Thiago Martins, a dreadlocked Brazilian acrobat), gets up and does a series of leaning double-backflip thingummies before sitting down again to stare at the living-room table. Uma Ysamat, a musician with a penchant for Donizetti ballgowns, finds she cannot play the piano for want of the right kind of seat. A cane rocking chair eventually suffices - hilariously silencing every other two bars of a Bach Invention as it swings her fingers out of reach.

Traditional vaudeville gags sneak in under new guises. The old mirror routine becomes a bittersweet mime for two men writing identical suicide notes. The man-with-unwieldy-newspaper gag proves it still works using a compact edition. Gaëlle Bisellach-Roig juggles batons as if she were stretching strudel pastry, then drops the lot and juggles air instead. Niklas Ek, Sweden's 60-year-old modern dance legend, keeps seizing a microphone intending to make a speech but never makes it. Embarrassed, he covers his head in an old brass clock and simply ticks.

Not every number hits its comic target, but the show is so profligate with ideas it hardly matters. Every time Thiérrée takes the floor, though, you're gripped: by his acrobatic attempts to insert his slight frame onto a sofa already fully occupied; as he tries to stand having lost the use of his feet.

At best, La Veillée goes beyond comedy and circus, touching an emotional quick that reaches something bigger. Out of all the making and creating and transforming is distilled a soaring optimism about what it is to live. When finally Thiérrée reprises the gale-force opening, the desperate shipwreck has become a golden galleon, its sails full, its sailors smiling into the wind.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

'La Veillée des Abysses': Warwick Arts Centre (02476 524524), tonight

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