Welcome to The Empire, a strange world of music hall, madness and murder. Say hello to the cast of The Vaudevillains. They are a motley crew: Albert Frog and his ‘companion’ Mr Punchy; beautiful ‘Siamese Striplets’ The Cerberus Sisters; and nervous knife-thrower Ray the Blade, all fondly watched over by The Empire’s owner Charlie, whom everyone simply adores. But hang on, if everyone loves him so much then why, before the first number is even over, is he lying on stage with a knife in his back? And who could possibly have wanted to kill him? In the weird and wonderful world of Les Enfants Terribles we quickly learn that our first impressions are not always correct.
This ambitious company has already won a plethora of awards and recognition, so you couldn’t blame it for being tempted to rest on its laurels. However it is back and pushing itself even further with a musical that is as stunning musically as it is visually.
We are lured into the theatre with a sound of scraping knives, the wide eyed looks of some grotesquely attractive triplets, and a host of unnerving cackles which both delight and alarm in equal measure. The cast are introduced in a series of fantastical rhymes that wouldn’t seem amiss in the midst of a Roald Dahl story; when fully assembled on stage in all their chaotic glory they burst into a song filled with energy and purpose, moving together in an exquisitely anarchic way. Each hectic advance seems at once impulsive yet perfectly rehearsed, and I felt at ease watching the cast’s professionalism. From the first wiggle of an eyebrow, we are swept up, rushing through ninety minutes of continuously joyful exuberance.
‘Fun’ seems a rather inadequate word to use, but that’s exactly what The Vaudevillains is. I stopped smiling about as often as the actors paused for breath (hint: not a lot). No talent seemed wasted, with the players popping up in all manner of situations to display a seemingly never-ending array of skills. Despite this, character continuity was nicely preserved, and the relatively small ensemble managed to distinguish between their various different parts with costumes, props and, above all, sheer force of acting ability.
Oliver Lansley’s script uses language so beautiful, clever and diverse that even Russell Brand would struggle to keep pace. This, coupled with such a mesmerising stage aesthetic, helps to create a world that draws you in completely. The scenery is a joy, and it is wonderful to see such a seemingly simple piece of set being manipulated into constantly changing backgrounds. It is a cupboard, then a cinema screen, then a knife thrower’s target. There is something magical about watching the cast manoeuvre its various parts and it always adds to the unfolding action on stage.
I also never thought I’d watch a musical where one scene was performed entirely in silence, fusing mime and imaginative nods to silent film to tell us the character’s story. This proves to be one of the comic highlights, only beaten by a scene involving Professor Frog, his ‘companion’ and a nun, which was so horrendously funny I could hardly see the stage through tears of laughter.
This is not your ordinary musical, and if it’s a night in a tourist packed West End theatre you’re after then I suggest heading further up the Strand for a bit of Legally Blonde. However, if you enjoy your stories complex, your comedy just the right side of black and don’t have a fear of ventriloquist’s dummies then I implore you to see The Vaudevillains. This is a magnificent example of the power of the theatre to shock, move and entertain; to miss out on this triumph of a piece would be (sorry) villainous.
At Charing Cross Theatre until May 14th visit www.lesenfantsterribles.co.uk for more details