The Andersen Project, Barbican, London

Fairy tale with a Grimm streak
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When the committee in Denmark approached the Québécois wunderkind about creating a theatre piece for the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth in 2005, they must have been aware - from the evidence of his earlier one-man shows, such as Vinci, Needles and Opium, and The Far Side of the Moon - that there was likely to be a strong, semi-autobiographical element. One wonders, though, whether they had bargained for a feat of identification as extreme as the one he pulls off (so to speak) in this flawed, but haunting piece.

Andersen is occasionally glimpsed as an oddball loner who's in constant flight from his native Denmark and in search of the illicit pleasures denied by his unprepossessing demeanour. His unconsummated love for the Swedish nightingale, Jenny Lind, is powerfully communicated in a scene where he vainly strips naked a female dummy which then glides away from him.

Threaded through the proceedings, there's a dramatisation, using tiny wooden puppets, of his story "The Dryad" about a virgin tree-nymph who longs to be transplanted to Paris, where she forfeits her existence for a brief snatch of human life as a visitor to the World Exhibition of 1867. It's heavily implied that Andersen pumped a great deal of his own yearning for the forbidden into this sad, self-destructive creature.

The titular hero is upstaged, however, by two modern characters in a bleak, but ruefully amusing, narrative that offers distorted echoes of his plight.

The Lepage surrogate is Frédéric Lapointe, a Canadian rock lyricist who has come to Paris to write the libretto for an opera of "The Dryad". Like Lepage (who lost all his hair in childhood to alopecia), the albino Frédéric has a condition that sets him apart. Knowing how cruel children can be, he has had a vasectomy and been deserted by his long-time lover, who wants to start a family.

Images of isolation are multiplied by the tragicomic figure of the Opéra Garnier producer - an unscrupulous fixer who has a porn-addiction that destroys his marriage. There's a desolately funny sequence where, just as he is about to get down to business in a peep show booth, this art-world mandarin receives a phone call from his little daughter, who has not been picked up from school. Even after that, he glances at his watch, to see if there's still time... "He was quite a wanker," declares Frédéric in the quietly hilarious scene where he has to explain his take on Andersen to the board of the Royal Danish Theatre.

The show suggests a link between emotional rejection, imagination and masturbatory fantasy, but for every person who can turn loneliness into true art, there are hundreds of thousands who are stuck at the wanking stage. With Andersen so often pushed into the background, the piece can shed little light on this crucial difference. What it does present is further proof of Lepage's ability to create a seamlessly spell-binding whole from the integration of live performance, puppetry, high-tech visuals and perfectly chosen music. Who could forget the magical moment where Frédéric suddenly mutates into the humanised Dryad, wandering through projected engravings of the Paris Exhibition, or the vignette where he caresses a marble statue? There is also a nice streak of self-reflexive comedy (an in-joke about the invidious politics of international co-production and the low status of French-Canadians).

The Andersen Project is dryly aware that a semi-autobiographical solo show could itself be considered a pretty onanistic activity.

To 18 February (0845 120 7516)