By: James Banyard, TRP Reviewer
At the theatre this week an oversized orange mermaid with enormous buttock extensions trips over the set, the backstage crew forget to drag her off despite her desperate screams for help, and she makes a thrashing exit like the panicked flip-flap of a beached walrus, all while the audience are shrieking themselves hoarse with laughter. Welcome to the brilliant, physical comedy theatre of Le Navet Bete.
Yes, the show is called Treasure Island, and yes with RL Stephenson’s tale you are obliged to include certain scenes and characters – Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver (and Parrot) Billy Blood, The Admiral Benbow Pub, A Treasure Map, Ben Gunn, and of course the Island. All of these and more are present with the twists and the polish that you expect of Le Navet Bete. That said though, the story doesn’t matter. It’s a platform for a series of sophisticated physical sight gags, wordplay, puppetry, meta-humour and, of course, Matt Freeman’s pale bum.
Students of comedy will enjoy spotting and listing all the different kinds of humour in this reprised Treasure Island, a show devised with the Barbican Theatre Plymouth in 2019, and given a truncated outing (halted early by a pandemic lockdown) at the Exeter Northcott in 2021. Everyone else will just be pleased to give their laughter muscles a thoroughly good work out.
Matt Freeman, Al Dunn and Nick Bunt are playful masters of physical comedy with frequent forays through the fourth wall. Recognisable elements from Mischief Theatre’s The Play That Goes Wrong – from tripping over the set, to the set collapsing, to forgetting lines – are brilliantly funny, but Le Navet Bete push into new ground by introducing a walk-on character who quickly realises he is completely useless to the plot and removes himself to more gales of laughter.
Pop cultural gems are repurposed with vigour, from the genuinely moving rendition of the theme tune to Cheers, to the dark transformation of lovable fish finger icon Captain Birdseye.
I saw their very successful pantomime Robin Hood in residence at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter this year, and while it was a solid show, the biggest disappointment was that Matt kept his clothes on at all times. Luckily, for long-term fans tonight there is plenty partial nudity.
Treasure Island is a reliable sandbox for the troupe to flex their comedy muscles. There’s no swearing of course, apart from one mild use of the word ‘arse’ so this is a deliciously family friendly outing. The biggest laughs, no, let’s call them shrieks, came from the repeated disrobement of Matt. The woman sitting next to me erupted in loud squeals at nearly everything Matt did. When I chatted to Matt in the foyer afterwards (the company always hang around the bar afterwards and love to meet their audience) he jokingly said he had been working very hard on his bum.
The show has elements of pantomime, including a tiny bit of audience participation and a game show element, but the performance itself has been rubbed clean of any Christmas spirit, so don’t feel you are getting a mince pie at Easter.
I haven’t laughed this much at the Lyric since seeing the The Play That Goes Wrong last year. Guaranteed to make the whole family split their sides. Go.