Christine and the Queens review – a glittering solo circus

An ethereal voice booms from above, echoing down over Paris’s Cirque d’Hiver: “Redcar, come to me baby.” Stationed in the middle of a ring-shaped stage, Christine and the Queens – real name Héloïse Letissier – is performing in a 19th-century circus lined with gilded horses and plush velvet curtains, on a stage originally designed for acrobats and clowns. In place of a trapeze, a blue wire moon dangles from an invisible rope, carefully operated by a black-clad figure in a plague mask. A tangled junk-yard of kitschy Christmas lights, helium birthday balloons, traffic cones, red warning tape, and medieval tapestries spill down the steep, graduated steps. Placed next to the minimal neon lights and slick, meticulous choreography that characterised the French artist’s earlier tours – for 2016’s English language debut Chaleur Humaine and 2018’s Chris – this peculiar, slightly ramshackle production feels like a rejection of everything Letissier has done to this point. Accordingly, a bright red billboard outside the venue bears a statement of intent: pop music is dead, long live theatre.

Related: Christine and the Queens: Redcar les Adorables Étoiles review – clouds of sorrow from the artist’s new persona

A showcase for Letissier’s new album Redcar Les Adorables Étoiles, the setlist is dominated by new material, which itself feels like a backdrop to tonight’s highly theatrical, concept-heavy staging. Single-handedly holding court in this one-performer show, Letissier has an intensity throughout that veers from anger to comedy; he bickers with stage props and briefly pauses the show to welcome a stunned punter back to their seat. Redcar Les Adorables Étoiles in recorded form feels like a slightly obtuse knight’s tale, but performed it feels more like watching strange, postmodern Shakespeare, Letissier a confused, lost figure stuck between playing the jester and disconnecting from his audience completely.

Beginning with the loving farewell of Ma Bien Aimée Byebye, Letissier rips off a white ball gown and stamps it to the floor, and as his moody, 80s infused synth vision progresses, various dream-like scenes replace anything resembling a regular pop show. His traditional troupe of dancers is gone. Instead, Redcar – a new guise introduced with Redcar Les Adorables Étoiles – sings into a headset mic as he moves through various scenes. Throughout, a giant, anthropomorphic security camera pivots on a long black neck, nuzzling Redcar at one point like a friendly mechanical giraffe. Letissier moves around the space with a limp – he is clearly physically limited by a leg injury he sustained during rehearsals for the original Redcar gigs, which were supposed to take place back in September – and though he masks it, he appears to be in pain at points.

Letissier frequently adopts alternate personas and exaggerated expressions of self: on his debut, Christine and the Queens was a tender, soft-edged figure, desperate to unearth the beauty of feeling like a “tilted” outsider. The protagonist of 2018’s Chris amped things up, dripping with desire and boldly unapologetic about it. Redcar, meanwhile, is a trickier figure to pin down. Named after the procession of red cars he kept seeing following the death of his mother in 2019, he takes on many different likenesses throughout the night’s show: a suave ringleader holding court in a three-piece suit, a mischievous sailor perched on the edge of a bath, and a Herculean hero wielding a bright red PVC penis and matching cape. All of these characters mimic and re-enact macho tropes, swaggering around the stage with thumbs jauntily in pockets, seducing stage props and prowling the front row. Throughout, each iteration also seems to be waiting for a revolutionary moment of transformation, prodding the stationary objects around the stage and hoping for an angel or saint to descend. It’s a striking show: some of the revelations of grief and self-transformation that don’t quite connect on Redcar Les Adorables Étoiles as a standalone record seem more deeply explored on stage, the gloom and strangeness of this sprawling, unfocused album finding a more fitting home soundtracking this haunted circus ring.

  • Christine and the Queens performs Redcar at the Southbank Centre on 22 November