ComedyDramaPantomimeReviewSouth West

Aladdin – Plymouth Athenaeum

Writer: John Nicholson and Le Navet Bete

Director: John Nicholson

Set & Costume Designer: Fi Russell

Composer: Peter Coyte

Choreographer: Linzy Na Nakorn

Lighting Designer: Marcus Bartlett

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Bright, bold and wittily inventive, Le Navet Bete’s pantomime takes on the challenge of telling the story of Aladdin.

We know the nuts-and-bolts of the story: the lamp, the genie, and love triumphing over evil. But this production dares to be different. Directed by John Nicholson, Le Navet Bete’s reputation for creative, physical comedy is put here to good use.

What you might expect from this company, however, is soon dispelled. Le Navet Bete (Nick Bunt, Al Dunn, Dan Bianchi, and Matt Freeman) give us a fully-rounded production that deploys all the tricks of traditional pantomime to keep its audience entertained. A cast of easily identifiable characters; a well-paced narrative and a sprinkling of topical references. No panto this year is complete without the obligatory Brexit joke.

The staging, a clever multi-tasking design, makes good use of the Plymouth Athaneum space, taking us from launderette to palace in the blink of an eye. With well-judged use of props and lighting, you could be forgiven for thinking you are watching a regular panto, but Le Navet Bete’s Aladdin is far from ordinary.

The point of difference is in the delivery. Doing more with less, the company takes the theme of a low-budget production and runs with it. The gadgetry is thoroughly charming – you’ll want your own flying carpet by the end of the show. Special effects are used sparingly, but when they are used, they create maximum impact. A surprise towards the end of the show – a Great British Bake Off joke – sums up the whole Navet Bete experience. It is not the usual sparkle and dazzle of a panto’s big reveal, but it is a moment filled with the joy of the unexpected. It is a brilliant touch and one that sets Le Navet Bete apart from its competitors.

The company’s cult status, as a group known for physical comedy, is well-earned. The show is filled with jokes that will work for every member of the audience. What this expertise has given Le Navet Bete is a heightened awareness of timing. The jumps between scenes; working with a complex array of props and shifting scenery; every move is made seamlessly. A production that makes panto look this easy is clearly working very hard indeed.

All this is done with just a cast of four actors. This small cast makes up for what it lacks in size, with character and plenty of it. With the actors playing several roles, each character has been fully developed to give us a panto world populated with the good, the bad and the canine.

No character, from a fabulously devious Jafart, to a luminous Princess Jasmine, is left under-performed. The panto excels at making the best of a small cast – the stage never feels empty – this is a production brimming with energy and fun.

As a team, Le Navet Bete delivers a performance with precision and clarity. With a group this in sync with each other, the risk is looking (and feeling) over-rehearsed. Le Navet Bete instead uses that precision and clarity to give themselves room in the performance to ad-lib. These off-script moments make the panto come alive. Interacting with the audience gives the production an intimacy that can be missing from the big-budget, star-name pantos found elsewhere.

It is this connection the company builds with its audience that makes Le Navet Bete so remarkable. The key to their popularity isn’t hard to figure out. Bringing the history of physical comedy to a modern audience, but making it accessible, Le Navet Bete blends tradition with technology to produce a style that is all its own.

Aladdin bridges the avant-garde aspect of the company, with a gift for story-telling that leaves no-one behind. Making theatre inclusive is crucial to its development and longevity. That sense of personal connection is vital for young theatre-goers, as it’s something that cannot be replicated by the virtual world. By inviting the audience in, there is a sense of belonging that cannot be under-estimated. By making that first experience of theatre fun, enjoyable and exciting, it creates a bond, an association, that can potentially last a lifetime.

What Le Navet Bete does, and with such conviction, is persuade us that theatre is not an elite activity. It can, and should be, for everyone. A performance packed with fun and adventure? There’s no better present to give this Christmas.

Runs until: 6th January 2019 | Image: Mark Dawson

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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