If you think of clowning in terms of red noses and painted-on smiles, you’ll be surprised by Julien Cottereau. Except for the ill-fitting trousers and jaunty hat, he doesn’t fulfil any of those criteria. Mimed with exquisite sound work and fluidity, Imagine Toi, his Christmas one-man show at the Southbank Centre, exceeds all expectations I had of the former Cirque du Soleil lead clown.


French clown Julien Cottereau’s Imagine Toi presents a fascinating, hilarious world of make-believe mirth

Cottereau introduces us to his mimed world by “cleaning” his imaginary surroundings, with a vast array of sound effects. His facial movements are so subtle that it takes me at least five minutes to realise the sounds aren’t recorded, but are coming from his mouth. He soon introduces games such as throwing a mimed ball back and forth from the audience, which gradually become more elaborate. Children immediately warm up to the simplicity of the hilarious gag, which is fascinating to watch. Before you know it, the mime is picking kids and grown-ups to join him onstage.

A family show, Imagine Toi takes a few risks with what’s acceptable to the different age brackets in the crowd. Late in the show, a sketch with many imaginary dogs ends with one puppy beaten and bruised, groaning and whimpering. After a quick thumbs-up-or-down check with the public, he finds a volunteer to hold his invisible gun and prepare to put the poor thing out of its misery, with an inventive escalation of incentives to carry out the thankless task. Gasps and laughter alternate among patrons, who hold onto the edge of their seats with worry for a pet they cannot see. Cottereau creates such a real and affective environment that adults can’t help but believe the childlike wonder of his illusions.

Imagine Toi plunges you into one of the most liberating atmospheres I have ever felt in a theatre. Cottereau’s beautiful world of make-believe has no words, age, gender or time. The connection that builds between everyone in the room brings such a sense of safety that children are soon exchanging excited whispers with their parents. My favourite comment comes from a five-year-old girl at a front seat, who cracks up the first four rows by remarking “hah hah, Mummy, the fly’s on his dinkle.”

This inclusive 90-minute mime-clown tour de force is enjoyable and funny for all ages. I laugh so hard that my face hurts from smiling when I leave the Purcell Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Back in the real world, I find myself beyond inspired, truly contaminated by Julien Cottereau’s Imagine Toi: I can now do a mean dog woof.  Time to perfect my mimed sweeping.

Imagine Toi. Performed by Julien Cottereau. Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre, London SE1 8XX. 13-18, 20-23 December, 19:00; 15-16, 22-24 December, 14:00. £15. www.southbankcentre.co.uk


Photo credits: Gui O’Connor, exclusively for This Is Cabaret