It’s official! We’re Le Navet Bete groupies. Far from starved of good Christmas theatre here in North Somerset and Bristol, our small family nevertheless travelled down to Devon on Saturday night to catch our very favourite troupe’s A Christmas Carol, showing at Plymouth Atheneaum and co-produced by the company and Barbican Theatre. Having graduated from Plymouth University and based in Exeter, Le Navet Bete stick close to their roots at Christmastime and if anyone thinks we’ve made an effort to be there, spare a thought for the couple we meet who’ve driven the 6 hours from Manchester for a good old laugh. You see, once you’ve hurt your ribs at one of their shows, it’s hard to step away.
Dickens’ classic has become synonymous with Christmas and, even if you haven’t read the short book, it’s likely that you’ve seen countless films, animations, plays based upon in. In fact, watching Le Navet Bete perform A Christmas Carol, I’m struck by how much of the dialogue I know because Dan Bianchi, Nick Bunt, Al Dunn and Matt Freeman, our four actors on stage, really do stick well to the original story. Well, as much as Le Navet Bete can – of course there are unexpected extras. As ever, there is physical theatre, slapstick comedy, audience participation, music and the tightest teamwork you’re ever likely to see on stage. Impressive how these four men make everything look so effortless when really their talent is a finely honed skill that takes work and togetherness. Agile, intelligent and very, very silly!
Nick plays the cantankerous old Scrooge with a snarl and a stoop and, as the story progresses, a vulnerability that draws pity from the audience: guided by the four ghosts, we actually want him to change his skinflint ways and embrace not just Christmas but all of humanity. And what ghosts they are! Not wishing to spoil the surprise – Al’s Ghost of Christmas Past is technologically inspired, Dan’s Ghost of Christmas Present is Over-the-Top in a true Twenty-First Century style and Matt’s Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is downright ridiculous and a touch scary. The jokes and mishaps are sometimes obvious in a pantomime way, which takes nothing away from the funniness of the writing here (by Le Navet Bete, Mark Laville and Director, Jon Nicholson) and it’s kudos to all that they manage to stay true to the essence of A Christmas Carol, while making this a uniquely LNB experience. My only disappointment is that more innuendo is not made of Sister Fan’s name (we still quote ‘Dick’ lines in our house, almost three years after seeing the unbeatable Dick Tracy at the Tobacco Factory). Mention must also be made of the all-important sound by Peter Coyte, always so fierce that my daughter usually waits for their shows with hands over ears, expecting a huge BANG or suchlike!
One of the funniest scenes for me is when Scrooge’s downtrodden clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his wife have a one-to-one discussion in the kitchen, played with such dexterity by Al with his super-fast costume changes – Set and Costume Designer Fi Russell must use an awful lot of velcro in her purpose-built and joyful creations! Also hilarious is Matt’s teamwork on stage with Oscar, a young member of the audience. But don’t worry because, although audience participation is so important here, they’d never pull you up unwillingly. I think. Their rapport with us is central.
The historical Atheneaum is a cosy and rustic sort of venue that screams accessibility – non-theatre goers would never be ill-at-ease here, although we did feel that Le Navet Bete suit a smaller stage, where they are more contained and focal. We love seeing them fall over each other – the fools.
This is a perfect family Christmas show – if you live in Plymouth or surrounds you’d be mad not to see it. The last scene is brilliant, “You didn’t expect it to end like that, did you?” Absolutely not but we’re really happy that it did!
Le Navet Bete are at Plymouth Athenauem with A Christmas Carol until 7th January 2018. Ticket from Barbican Theatre website
Also look out for them in April at the same venue with Dick Tracy (here’s our review)