Writer: Robert Louis Stevenson
Director: John Nicholson
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 aims to convert you.
Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, the Exeter-based theatre company blends physical comedy with classic story-telling. In this reboot, Jim Hawkins (played by Nick Bunt) sets out on a dangerous adventure when former sailor Billy Bones arrives at his family’s inn, Admiral Benbow, and starts telling the boy about a notorious Captain Flint.
Having been first mate for the Captain, Billy has custody of Flint’s treasure map. After a fight at the inn, where Bones unexpectedly dies, Hawkins finds a treasure map, stitched into the lining of the sailor’s travel chest.
A ship and crew are quickly amassed, with the key addition of 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, who despite growing close to the boy, may not be telling him the whole truth.
A perfect Christmas show for those who don’t do traditional panto, Le Navet Bete give us not syrupy sentiment, but an uplifting message from Stevenson himself. Adventure, however you determine it, proves the real reward.
Hawkins not only learns about the world, but he also works out how to negotiate his way through it. Treasure Island, with a noted lack of (human) female characters, may seem like Boys’ Own territory, but the production’s themes of loyalty, trust and friendship have the capacity to reach everyone.
These ideas also resonate more sharply 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 challenge even the most cynical member of the audience to remain impartial. We’re all Team Hawkins by the interval’s dramatic cliffhanger.
The production also fills in the gaps around the Jim Hawkins / Long John Silver narrative. The back story of Captain Flint – and who else might have a stake in the discovery of his treasure – fleshes out the tale. Le Navet Bete remind us that a classic can be too well known, and they correct this by giving Stevenson’s story an edge of apprehension.
Of course, the production also has great fun with Stevenson’s book. 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, Bianchi, Dunn, Bunt and Freeman have created a version of Stevenson’s novel that not only entertains, it refreshes the narrative for a modern audience. The production 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.
Runs until: Sunday 5 January 2020