Dancing Brick presents a stage adaptation of the legendary film by Jacques Tati. An unlikely undertaking at first thought with the film’s notoriety for excessive detail, a myriad of characters, and almost no plot nor dialogue. And yet Co-Directors Valentina Ceschi and Thomas Eccleshare, with a cast of five (including Ceschi who doubles as an actor too), have created an evening’s triumph of mime and movement.
There is little plot – various people arrive in Paris at the airport, visit the Pour la Maison Paris Expo, stay in a hotel and go to a restaurant before returning to the airport. And there is little spoken dialogue – only occasional words are heard, some in French, some in English.
To start things off, Tati’s great comedic invention, Monsieur Hulot (Enoch Lwanga) enters through the audience. Dressed in his recognisable raincoat and hat, carrying an umbrella (Set & Costume Designer Michael Vale), Lwanga’s languid movements and sad reflective expression set the mood. He gamely blows up a balloon and then lets it down again.
Hulot enters the opening scene in the arrivals lounge (“Arrivee”) of a French airport. Dozens of characters come and go, arriving and departing via an escalator, criss-crossing the stage – a different hat, jacket, suitcase signifying a change in character. There are two nuns, two opposing volleyball teams, holiday makers, a beat combo, paparazzi… It is difficult to believe that this is a cast of just five actors and we shall see many of these characters again before the end of the evening. The humour within the scene is gentle rather than pratfall slapstick and the cast show off their consistently excellent mime skills. Their movement is accompanied by a background of foyer muzak, setting a light comedic tone, and a rhythm for the antics to follow.
One character stands out ahead of the crowd. Barbara (Yuyu Rau) catches the eye of Monsieur Hulot and there begins a burgeoning romance. Together they share a beautiful fantasy dance scene seemingly, and surreally, outside of their adjacent hotel rooms.
The highlight of the evening is an extended scene set in a newly opening restaurant. With non-stop action, the ensemble’s comic timing is impeccable. Characters come and go, a few running gags are followed – a missing cat, a fracas about balloons, an increasingly drunk waiter – the mayhem occasionally breaking out into quirky dance routines. Central to the activity and holding the scene together is the Maitre D’ (Abigail Dooley) who is excellently portrayed with superb characterization.
Two songs are introduced. The first by Chilly Gonzales & Pierre Grillet is beautifully sung live by Valentina Ceschi. The second by Martha Wainwright accompanies the final scene between Hulot and Barbara as they spend time in the park. The atmosphere for the first time is less zany than what has gone before, more melancholic. We realise that Barbara will soon leave and Hulot – the gentle clown – will once again be alone.
As the actors take their well-earned bows, they are joined in a curtain call by the stage management team who undoubtedly have done their bit in the wings to make happen the huge number of costume and prop changes.
Dancing Brick have created a delightful entertainment of gentle comedy maintained by the skill and indefatigable energy of this small ensemble.
“A perfect Christmas show for those who don’t do panto, Le Navet Bete foregoes festive sentiment, to deliver an uplifting message”
A story of false friends and greedy pirates, Treasure Island may not seem like the obvious choice for a Christmas story, but Le Navet Bete’s new show, written and directed by John Nicholson aims to convert you.
Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, the show blends physical comedy with classic story-telling. In this reboot of the treasure-hunting story, Jim Hawkins (played by Nick Bunt) heads out on a dangerous adventure when former sailor Billy Bones arrives at the family’s inn, the Admiral Benbow, and starts telling him stories about a notorious Captain Flint.
Billy, former first mate to Flint, has inherited his treasure map. During a fight at the inn, Bones unexpectedly dies. On going through the sailor’s belongings, Hawkins finds the map, stitched safe in the lining of a trunk.
A ship and crew are amassed, along with Long John Silver (Al Dunn) as the ship’s cook. With the crew and map, Hawkins sets sail. As their journey begins, Hawkins befriends Silver. Despite growing close to the boy, Silver may not be telling Hawkins the whole truth.
Hawkins not only learns about the world, he works out how to negotiate his way through it. Treasure Island may seem like Boys’ Own territory, but the production’s ideas of loyalty, trust and friendship have the capacity to reach out to everyone.
These ideas also resonate more sharply with us because they seem, at first, to be old-fashioned. We smile at Jim trusting an old rogue – it’s when the boy starts trusting himself, that Stevenson has us. As Hawkins grows in confidence, and begins to outwit those with their eye on the treasure, Le Navet Bete dare us to remain impartial. We’re all Team Hawkins by the interval’s dramatic cliffhanger.
The show also fills in the gaps around the Jim Hawkins / Long John Silver narrative. The back story – and who else might have a stake in the treasure – is fleshed out in more detail. Le Navet Bete remind us that when it comes to classics, we may not know them as well as we think we do. The production gives Stevenson’s story an edge of apprehension. We are never quite sure what is going to happen next.
Of course, the piece has great fun with Stevenson’s book. There’s some wonderful design elements from Fi Russell and some fitting music from Peter Coyte. Long John Silver’s parrot gets a 21st century rebrand; to redress the gender balance, a seductive mermaid is introduced (Matt Freeman). In ratcheting up the tension, you may leave the show never wanting to eat a fish finger again.
Le Navet Bete’s strength is in finding stories that match their collaborative spirit. With Treasure Island, Dunn, Bunt, Freeman and fourth member of the cast Dan Bianchi have created a version of Stevenson’s novel that not only entertains, it refreshes the narrative for a modern audience. It does equal service to Stevenson and to those who may be coming to the story for the first time. Ideal for children who love an adventure, Treasure Island is a great alternative to the usual pantomime. Pirates instead of genies; mermaids instead of princesses. Dive into another world this Christmas – there’s treasure to be found.
A perfect Christmas show for those who don’t do panto, Le Navet Bete foregoes festive sentiment, to deliver an uplifting message from Stevenson himself. Adventure, however you determine it, proves the real reward.
Reviewed by Helen Tope
Photography by Matt Austin
Barbican Theatre at Plymouth Athenaeum until 5th January