Imagine Toi | Julien CottereauChildren bother me, so I was a little uncomfortable with just how many children there were in The Playhouse at Sydney Opera House on Wednesday night. What was this - a Wiggles gig? Shouldn't the kids be home in bed? (To clarify – the number of children present was probably less than 10%, it was just more than I’m used to at the theatre).

Former Cirque du Soleil clown and mime artist Julien Cottereau entered bathed in deep red light, seemingly menaced by some growling, demonic beast off-stage, and it was soon obvious that we were about to be entertained by the physical and vocal talents of a wonderfully imaginative artist. Time to settle and let ourselves be lead by the hand into a land of enchantment, humour and wonder. As we all watched this lone man on the stage, we were equal - all of us were children.

Julien Cottereau bends the rules of mime; he’s actually quite a noisemaker. But although his vocal chords are as much a part of his tool kit as his physical movement, I don’t think a single word was uttered throughout his 80 or so minutes on stage. The deep demonic growl was his, as were the constant stream of whistles and chirrups which quickly became a language all it’s own, communicating as clearly as if he were using words.

On a bare stage this charming clown was a hapless character blown from one sketch to the next. He played with a ball. He played with a ball and a dog. He played with a bigger dog and a bigger ball. The dog grew to cartoonishly giant proportions requiring an even bigger ball with more flamboyant efforts to inflate it. He coaxed us along with this sketch and many others so that we sat forward, chin in hand, and smiled and eventually laughed at where he was taking us.

And although the clown was in charge of proceedings and very much the focus of a solo act, he was not always alone on that bare stage. Occasionally the lights would go up and we quickly realised that this indicated that another audience member was about to be plucked from being lead by the hand from the comfort of their seat to being lead by the hand up onto the actual stage.

Audience participation can be awful, and this didn’t bode well given that the clown (don’t think red-nose-big-shoes clown, more Parisian street clown) was giving stage directions for the amateur spontaneous impro actors via little more than hand signals, whistles and frantic gesticulation. What happened, though, was that we got what he wanted the civilians to do just as they did, and they became his co-actors in yet more of this ridiculously charming performance.

Back to the kids. They paid attention and understood that the performer was miming shooting a puppy or playing music with a stretched piece of bubble gum. I know I said I don’t like kids, but that night in the audience I was at one with them and I soaked up the pure joy of their bubbling laughter, and I laughed along with them.

Australian audiences might recognise something of The Umbilical Brothers in Imagine Toi (interestingly the Umbilicals were there in the audience on opening night… wonder what they thought?), but where the Australian duo is outright slapstick buffoonery there is something warm and human about the French performer’s show.

There is much talk of the purpose of theatre to challenge and I agree that it sometimes should. But sometimes it’s also wonderful to simply escape to a world of imagination and whimsy. I came away from the theatre feeling more happy than I have in quite a while. A good thing, no?

Sydney Opera House: Adventures:07 presents
Imagine Toi
Julien Cottereau

Venue: Playhouse | Sydney Opera House
Dates: Wed 15 Aug – Sat 1 Sept
Time: Tues @ 6.30pm; Wed - Sat @ 8pm; Matinees Sat @ 2pm & Sun @ 5pm
Duration: 75mins
Tickets: $48 / $38, Under 12 $28.
Bookings: 02 9250 7777 or

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