Writer: John Nicholson / Le Navet Bete
Director: John Nicholson
A daring pirate adventure, Treasure Island is not only a classic story, it also represents a significant moment in the history of local theatre group, Le Navet Bete. Their adaptation originally debuted in Plymouth, 2019. After a few years away from the city, the group of four actors have returned with a revised version, tailor-made for a bigger stage.
Le Navet Bete’s approach is to superimpose physical comedy onto classic story-telling. Taking advantage of a bigger performance space at Theatre Royal Plymouth, the props are more impressive; an intelligent use of lighting and sound creates an ambitious outline of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book.
In a furiously-paced first half, we are introduced to Jim Hawkins (played by Nick Bunt). He is a naive, trusting boy who dreams of adventure. Adventure comes looking for him, when sailor Billy Bones arrives at his family’s inn and starts filling Hawkins’ head with tales of missing treasure, located on the other side of the world. After a deadly fight at the inn, Hawkins, in the chaos that ensues, discovers a map in Bones’ travel chest.
Fortune follows Hawkins as he secures a ship and crew, with Long John Silver (Al Dunn) as the ship’s cook. As they set sail, Silver ingratiates himself with Hawkins. The boy will have to trust his own instincts, but also figure out who can be taken at their word. Reprising their roles, the chemistry between Dunn’s world-worn cynic and Bunt’s innocent picks up where it left off: their verbal sparring leaves room for improvisation, which keeps the production feeling fresh.
The narrative may be sketched out for us, but the real fun comes in how Le Navet Bete choose to play the detail. Going bolder, with some surrealist touches, there is an experimental feel to this version (some moments are more effective than others). Wisely, the group have worked on maintaining an intimacy between themselves and the audience – a central component of the Navet Bete experience.
The quartet (including Matt Freeman and Stuart Billinghurst) flesh out Stevenson’s novel by playing myriad parts, and ramp up the comedy with their unique physical humour. There are real star turns here; and the cast grab at every opportunity to secure a laugh. In the role of Mermaid, Matt Freeman aims for a grace and elegance not seen since Esther Williams.
What’s clear is that Le Navet Bete’s brand feels pretty indestructible. A cast change, scaling up shows to fit larger theatres, would test any established theatre group. Stuart Billinghurst fits in seamlessly with the group, and while Le Navet Bete devotees might worry that bigger does not always mean better, the show’s capacity to adapt and evolve is what takes it to the next level. Treasure Island will charm newcomers, it will reassure the loyal fans. Le Navet Bete continue to succeed because they understand what their audience wants. It may been a while since their last visit to Plymouth, but in this revival, there is still treasure – and joy – to be found.
Runs until 15 April 2022