James Thierrée’s Compagnie du Hanneton contort, slither and glide amongst a unique steampunk set, developing a strange array of transient characters in Tabac Rouge at Sadler's Wells this week. With the set design integral to the ambiance of the piece, we follow Thierrée as the protgonist through a dark world of imprisonment, swinging between despair and creation, comedy and anger.

Thierrée’s Tabac Rouge is propelled by an overwhelming madness – self-destructiveness verging on creativity – that plunges its protagonist into bouts of inertiatic despair. He is constrained by his own creations – those being both the dynamic steampunk-esque set and the supporting characters surrounding him, whom he has either dug out from some pile of animal rubble or built from scratch – perhaps somewhere in between.

Tabac Rouge sets up an intriguing dichotomy. The story is contained yet the dance itself is uncontainable. There is an uncomfortable sense of being trapped – we are shown through a door in a high mirrored wall and only emerge to see the sun once, upon which the protagonist is not so much enticed but guilt-tripped back into confinement. But imprisonment creates a wealth of adventurous movement – the company treat the set like playground, swinging from moving scenery. A moving scaffold is rotated, manipulated and elevated overhead, set and props are wheeled around the stage, often made animate with an almost invisible pair of legs… (I hear someone muttering about health and safety, which has clearly been left far behind). Nothing is secure, every character slides in and out of view repeatedly, leaving a lingering feeling of their transitory existence. There is an enormous degree of freedom, though contained in a finite space. The dancers zip across the floor on wheeled boards, chairs, tables and huge structures that tower overhead. They climb onto the scaffold and get plucked into the air like ragdolls. Thierrée and Manuel Rodriguez, his assistant – “staff” doesn’t really cut it – conduct them around like puppets, creating movements, eschewing them and enforcing stillness. At times they get out of control – one dancer screams at the mirrored wall, rattling the cage she’s trapped in as the sound reverberates – yet they are put back in their place by increasingly extreme means.

Similarly, Thierrée establishes a unique movement style at once playful and restrictive – not soft and flowing free, but robotic, anti–human – that takes a huge degree of technical control yet creates the appearance that they dancers are under the influence of some external force. The dancers barely seem confined to their bodies – they seem to morph and change before our very eyes, the group growing seemingly older during the course of the piece and later emerging with scaly skins from underneath their school-girlish uniforms. Each of the dancers possesses movement powers that appear beyond humanly possible. Contortionist Katell Le Brenn is outstandingly animated and expressive. Her movements make her almost unrecognisable at several points, as she walks on her hands while bent backwards over a wheeled stool, her feet curling and toes wriggling at Thierrée’s head height. She reminds me of the creatures that live in the dark under Sid’s bed in Toy Story, created from mis-matched parts and discarded to live tortured lives. She seems to be his special companion but is ostracised by the rest of the group – she lingers on the edge of the space, a liminal, shadowy figure hanging in the air like a figment of the protagonist’s imagination.

Although dark, gloomy and serious, Tabac Rouge is wonderfully playful and humorous. Rodriguez’s opening moment sees him suck on a cigarette and exhale, the sound amplified overhead. On the second drag, the sounds and actions don’t coincide, leaving him to pause awkwardly and exhale early, thus setting a precedent of metatheatrical humour that continues throughout. Le Brenn bends backwards and puts on Thierrée’s jacket, thus appearing headless, sits next to him and cradles his head – an established hallowe’en trick, realised on stage, to the great admiration of the audience.

Tabac Rouge is like a post–apocalyptic quarantine situation taking place in a Studio Ghibli rendition of an engine room – a roomful of people going stir-crazy within a prison of dirt, oil and clanking pipes. Thomas Delot's epic soundtrack makes every moment feel significant, the characters’ desperation for freedom building throughout the piece, creating a huge, mad climax.

The most lasting impression of Tabac Rouge is it’s set – the final image of the suspended scaffold, swinging mirrors dangling from it and the artistic director spinning from it is a sustaining memory from this adventurous work. Completely off-the-wall, this playful work of Compagnie du Hanneton is definitely not to be missed.