Barbican Theatre at Plymouth Athenaeum
Reviewed – 15th December 2019
“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
Previously reviewed by Helen: