Who lives in a house like this? The duvet swallows people whole, what looks like a glittery armadillo is on the loose and the floor is littered with mannequins and violins. That inventory alone would suggest circus superstar James Thierrée, and in the room that is created on stage in his new spectacular he becomes a living portrait, peeking his head through a crooked rococo picture frame.
Its origins predate the Covid crisis but Room will resonate with anyone who has been staring at the walls and going stir crazy. These walls even demand your attention as the set characteristically has a mind of its own: panels pulsate and rotate as the structure is assembled before us and just as swiftly exploded, with the enormous roof floating away though delicately held at one point in Thierrée’s palm.
As in his shows Tabac Rouge and The Toad Knew, chaos reigns and the task at hand for his character is to create a little harmony. Tabac Rouge started with the concept of a man rehearsing a production which runs away from his control. There’s a similar storyline here, with a dash of the artistic quandaries of Fellini’s 8 1/2. One minute Thierrée is playing an architect whose building won’t behave; the next he’s a director whose performers don’t listen. It becomes a battle for authority – even his mop of silvery curls are unruly, a percussive flurry accompanying every flick of his fringe.
For the first time, Thierrée has assembled a cast dominated by musicians and he has also introduced vocal acrobatics to his act. He sings and half-raps his own compositions in a production that has more text (in multiple languages) and less dance than usual. The music and movement coalesce with playful results when one member of the ensemble turns her euphonium into a monster or when Thierrée rumbles the word “room” as if summoning its construction through sheer willpower. But too often the lyrics veer from ruminative to rambling and they dispel some of the bewitching inscrutability of the visual language.
The songs’ occasional sentimentality is also at odds with the persona of his puppet-master whose arc, and relationship with the central female character, seems incomplete – his tyranny is never resolved in the story’s emerging celebration of community.
By design, the show resembles a work in progress – with Thierrée constantly commenting on the process as scenes begin to take shape and are then scrapped. This unpredictable, restless tone matches the spirit of rehearsals and you’re never sure what will be razed to the ground and what will rise from it. But it also leads to a disjointed rhythm, exacerbated by bursts of eclectic music (from opera to rock) and pauses that include the house lights coming on, which means that – unusually for Thierrée – it’s a show that is hard to lose yourself in.
Thierrée’s trademark blend of the quotidian and the fantastical results in some delightfully nimble skits and mimes – a violin case that weighs a tonne, a music stand that traps his fingers – although some jokes grow repetitive and the production does not yet have the unity of his recent works. If the focus wavers it’s also because his character’s whims dictate the pace. In one dazzling moment, a dancer lies, limbs twisted, like a doll abandoned on a bedroom floor in favour of some other toy. That game is over, the next one’s begun – and we do our best to keep up.