An intimate group in a century old theatre is presented with a communiqué, which must be read, before we can begin. It’s a promising start as we ponder why there are so few in the audience, why we’ve been seated so far from the stage, and what role the smoke and mirrors will play in this adventure.

The first scenes appear stilted, with pauses that seem too long, humour that feels too forced and dialogue that does not ignite our curiosity. Ellen Steele as the talking bird provides a splendid buffer against what appears to be an ordinary setting about to stagnate. Just when we feel like we might wilt, the game, as they say in the classics, changes.

Angelique, isthisyours?Jude Henshall as Angelique. Photo © Cynthia Gemus

The set-up suggests intrigue, but what is delivered next is something altogether different. We are not gently beckoned out of our comfort zones; we are rudely thrown out. Our adventure begins, as Angelique serves up a tour itinerary, the likes of which, pedestrian theatre can only dream.

We pull into the station after the fourth wall; teichoscopia. Just as we acclimatise, we are again whisked away, and not à la whirlwind romance. There are challenges everywhere and the best strategy seems to be to follow directions.

It’s a bridge too far for some. During the proceedings, we are literally in the dark, without light, direction and a clue. We’ve become separated from our usher and an unfamiliar dread starts to creep in. Surely an accident of not keeping up is the cause, but later, writer Duncan Graham plays on this fear, making us question whether the occupational health and safety disaster-in-waiting was a deliberate precursor. Ushers brilliantly execute the fire alert scene; my group led admirably by Rachel Burke.

A series of accusing and condemning poison pen letters addressed to us all, pop up throughout. Conceptually fantastic, they very nearly have the desired effect, but for our conditioning that if you’re the one who “dunnit”, you’d already know. Being dumped into the show unites the audience, but not sufficiently to take on the collective guilt of the messages. What bearing the letters have to Angelique and her tale bordering on the prosaic is open to interpretation.

Angelique. Photo © Cynthia Gemus

Distinctive, and for the most part effective mise-en-scène aids our experience, if not our understanding of what, the expletive, is going on. There is almost too much shunting and prodding to keep hold of the thin plot line. It doesn’t matter. The experience is so awesome, that the ride is more enjoyable than our vehicle. Angelique not only turns the tables on conventional theatre, but also turns it inside out and leaves us hanging on; upside down. Disconcerting and thrilling, it is nothing if not fascinating.

The cast are amongst the impressive strengths of this production. Directed by Tessa Leong, Louisa Mignone is magnetic as George, stealing our attention through the introduction. Jude Henshall is excellent as Angelique (pronounced with grating Strine). As the unusual 16-year-old she is engaging, but through her cri de coeur, she is magnificent.

The clever decision to use a theatre unconventionally with scant regard to acoustics and architecture comes at a price; an entire scene lost to low audio and less visuals. Conceptually, it’s so good all is forgiven.

Societal hypocrisy gets fleshed out without a trace of subtlety, and these scenes are amusing and well crafted. But the presentation in the abstract by a character who may or may not be a bird, hallucination, incarnation of a missing sister, or a combination of all three, risks veering so far away from the anchor of our central character, that the messages become distracting. There are good points that are well made, but as sophisticated an audience as we are (ah-hem), plot and context should win over point making. Despite this, the dance we are led on that orbits the central character in no congruous way, is as enjoyable as it is challenging.

AngeliqueAngelique. Photo © Cynthia Gemus

Meanwhile, we keep glimpsing a man-sized crustacean lurking about the place, seemingly minding his or her business. We presume by the beard that he is a rock lobster (as the B-52s song plays in our heads) but when questioned why the member of the audience is a lobster, he claims to not know. Curiouser and curiouser. His comical fate and other glimpses of well executed farce, enhanced wonderfully by the full realisation of Anna Steen’s character Carol, suggests the isthisyours? troupe are as versatile as they are compelling.

Angelique is a risky undertaking and logistically as challenging as it gets. Ad libbing is well handled and this potentially perilous device is neatly tucked in towards the end, uniting the audience once again.

Angelique is masterfully theatrical, and a wonderful, innovative and highly commendable romp that is both fun and funny. There is plenty of brain fodder and fantastic use of space throughout this most unusual piece that well and truly succeeds in pulling the rug right out from under us.

Our final message is delivered individually and contains, amongst other information the concerning statement, “Nothing was disturbed in the making of this work”. If true in the making, it’s certainly not in the viewing. Disturbed? Yes. Entertained? Absolutely.

Angelique is at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, until October 21.