Aladdin: On A Scale From One To Ten, This Is An Eleven!
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Photography by Matt Austin
On a wet and windy Sunday, my sister and her boyfriend along with my mum and husband squeezed into my little Vauxhall Corsa for the drive from Exeter to Plymouth. Our destination? The Athenaeum Theatre to watch Exeter-based theatre company Le Navet Bete perform their Christmas show, Aladdin.
After sitting in on rehearsals and interviewing the Bete boys back in November, my excitement had been building and I was eager to see what they had described as their most risqué show to date.
Having built a strong local audience both in Exeter and Plymouth, Le Navet Bete are returning to the latter city for their eighth Christmas show. As LNB actor Al Dunn and director John Nicholson had explained last month, this performance of Aladdin would explore an origin story, answering questions that the original story did not.
The opening scene of Aladdin did just that, introducing the characters of the well-known tale but unravelling their origins; the genie’s creation, the story behind Widow Twanky’s character and so on. This was the same scene that I had watched in rehearsals but even in just those short weeks, there were many differences and adaptations to the version I had witnessed.
As the curtains closed on the opening scene, I knew I was now in unknown territory; the remainder of the show would be entirely new to me.
On curtain-up, the audience found themselves in a Christmas tree farm in Peckham. Naturally. From this reality we were soon transported to Panto Land as Al, or rather Aladdin, followed his uncle Jafart (oh yes, toilet humour will always win) into the land of his birth in search of his mother.
In true Le Navet Bete style, the audience was taken on a wonderfully wacky journey through a story of Aladdin like no other. As a company of just four actors, multiple roles involving record-breaking character changes were needed, with the exception of Al whose role remained as the title character Aladdin for most of the performance. With just four actors, it would be easy to succumb to limitations, allowing the quality of the performance to suffer. In my opinion, this has never happened in a Le Navet Bete show. Instead, the obvious limitation of four actors to play twenty or so roles is used to the advantage of the humour of the show, including characters breaking the fourth wall and playing up the humour that Princess Jasmine could not be on stage right now as Nick was currently playing the Genie.
The children in the audience were loving the opportunity to see adults behaving badly, as well as the confusion of all roles, whether male or female, being played by male actors. When it came to volume of laughs, however, the adults most definitely out-guffawed the children. As promised during their interview, there were a hefty number of blue jokes which flew right over the kids’ heads and left the adults in stitches.
In addition to the hugely successful panto dame character, in this case Widow Twanky played by Matt Freeman, the company along with director John had taken full license in creating hilarious new characters and tweaking well-known ones. The traditionally sweet Princess Jasmine was transformed into a spoilt, Australian-accented millennial-esque caricature by Nick Bunt. The Genie (also Nick Bunt) had been razmatazzed into an eye-catching flared suit and took on a rogueish, Brooklyn-player type role. For me, this was a clever decision to step away from the blue genie synonymous with Robin Williams and therefore a near impossible act to imitate. My personal favourite, however, had to be the role of Fritz, Jasmine’s servant, played by Dan Bianchi, who also plays the polar opposite role of the evil Jafart. Fritz’s first appearance saw him prancing on stage in a clingy lamé top, PVC apron and knee-high boots, affecting an overtly-camp German accent.
Throughout the performance, a simple yet effective façade was used to represent Widow Twanky’s launderette, Wankys (it took some audience members a little time to notice the sign, but once they did, a good solid minute of laughter ensued), the streets of Panto Town and the Sultan’s castle. Set on castors, the actors were able to unfold the set, almost like pages of a book, making scene changes relatively seamless, unless comedy value deemed it necessary to make more of a meal of it. A special mention has to be made for the ingenious idea behind the magic carpet. I won’t spoil how Le Navet Bete brought it to life, but it was entirely unexpected and absolutely hilarious; true comedy gold.
With a story as well-known as Aladdin, creating a piece of theatre that differs from the much-loved Disney and the campified panto offerings may, on paper, seem like an impossible task. For Le Navet Bete, nothing seems to be impossible. There is often something slightly insane about the ideas within their shows, and the fact that they take on storylines which well exceed their cast of four. They have an inimitable manic energy as a company, breaking theatrical boundaries and being as lude as humanly possible with an audience that comprises of around fifty per cent younger viewers. It has become a Christmas tradition for my husband and me to see Le Navet Bete in Plymouth, a tradition that has expanded to my sister and her boyfriend and this year to my mum, and it is a tradition I have no intention of breaking.
Aladdin will be playing at the Athanaeum in Plymouth until 6th January and tickets are selling out fast! To book yours, call the Barbican Theatre on 01752 267131.
Le Navet Bete wil begin touring their newest show, The Three Musketeers in the new year. For Exeter audiences, the show will be playing at the Northcott Theatre from the 1st to 5th May and in Plymouth from the 31st July to 17th August. Click here to book your tickets.