Le Navet Bete: Naughty But Nice
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Photography by Sofy Robertson
Last week, I had the pleasure of being invited to the Exeter Phoenix to watch local theatre company, Le Navet Bete, rehearse for their upcoming Christmas show: Aladdin.
Although none of Le Navet Bete hail originally from the South West, I always count them as local boys. Le Navet Bete was born out of a friendship that was cemented at Plymouth University’s Rolle Campus, when it was situated in Exmouth. The company have gone from strength to strength, taking their shows on national and international tours and have become a regular fixture in Plymouth for their Christmas shows.
Having met the Bete boys when I first moved to Exeter eight years ago, I am fortunate to say that I have not only become a fan, but a friend, so it was with great excitement that I took them up on the offer to sit in on rehearsals.
I arrived at Exeter Phoenix’s Top Studio to find rehearsals in full swing. Having never sat in on a theatre production rehearsal before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d heard stories from friends in the industry of fiery disagreements and passionate artistic differences. Le Navet Bete’s rehearsal could not have been more different. Passion for their craft was immediately evident, as was a positive culture of discussion and mistakes were merely part of the creative flow. I squashed myself into a corner, fly-on-the-wall style, to photograph and observe what really happens behind the scenes.
Present were the four actors who form Le Navet Bete; Al Dunn, Matt Freeman, Nick Bunt and Dan Bianchi, as well as director John Nicholson and choreographer Lindsay Nakorn. Alex Best, the fifth member of Le Navet Bete and the technical genius behind their shows, was not present that day.
When I entered the studio, the Bete boys were engaged in a dance-style warm up with choreographer Lindsay, a new partnership after they parted ways with their previous choreographer who was unable to work on this show. Lindsay, a previously Bristol-based choreographer who now works in London, stepped in to take the role.
Getting down to business, Le Navet Bete began to walk through the opening scenes of Aladdin. Immediately, I was reminded of their earlier work which had a high emphasis on physical theatre. Matt agreed, saying that it works with the “nature of the panto” which is all about “the big, the ridiculous”.
Through the rhyming sequence of the dialogue, a driving pace and energy was created which was mirrored in the choreographed movement. Before the Bete boys had even rehearsed with the musical accompaniment, I realised my foot had started to tap of its own accord.
I had not expected a rehearsal to be so full of discussion. Rather than a classic director-tells-actor approach, ideas were ventured from all members involved and discussed equally. When problems occurred; will the audience get this? This part feels too static; solutions were offered from all members and ideas were bounced until a satisfactory conclusion was formed.
At this stage in rehearsals, so much has to be imagined by the actors, with no props or set in the rehearsal space they were in. Forethought was clear at this point, discussing how the non-existent props would be used and how they should react to them.
As Le Navet Bete is made up of just four actors, they are masters of playing multiple characters. A huge part of their comedy appeal comes from seeing them embody a cast of diverse characters and from guessing who they will play next in the show. John commented:
“We need to be able to play the world of panto because we can’t deliver a full-on panto.”
For those who are familiar with Le Navet Bete’s shows, there is a definite trend where Matt takes on the majority of the female roles and this production is no exception. I asked what motivated this and Matt responded simply “I just love it; I just want to do it.” I still remember going to their outdoor production of Hansel and Gretel at Exeter University and hearing a small child exclaim “Oh it’s a man!” after Matt took off his witch’s wig at the end of the production.
After more than ten years working together, a level of comradery has built between the actors whose theatre company is founded on friendship. The passion they share is clear, as too is their brother-like familiarity. As with all familiar relationships, banter was rife during rehearsal. At one point, Matt joked about being in his mid-30s and being “past it” to which Dan responded: “late 30s, surely?”
After a morning of rehearsals, I was able to sit down with the four actors as well as director John and choreographer Lindsay and grill them about the show.
From the small snippet that I saw, I could tell that this, like Le Navet Bete’s other shows, would be very different from the original story that they were inspired by.
Tell me about your Aladdin:
Al: “We very much wanted to create our own version of Aladdin, so we thought of an origin story.”
John: “We wanted to address the flaws in the original story; why is Widow Twanky the way that she is? Who invented the Genie? How did the lamp end up in the cave?”
How many characters do you each need to play for this show?
Matt: “Al’s got one.” Everybody laughed. “I’ve got five, I think everyone has five and then some odd little bit cameo parts too. Nick’s got the worst amount of costume changes; he goes from Genie to Jasmine to Genie to Jasmine about ten times. But then he only had one character in the last Christmas show, so this is payback.”
You have built up a fantastic repertoire of shows over the years. Any particular favourites?
Dan: “I love Extravaganza. It’s the one that’s given us the most audience experiences and it’s the show that’s taken us around other countries. It took, probably, about seven years of development on and off. I think we learned things about doing that show in other countries that we wouldn’t have learned here.”
Matt: “I’ve loved touring Dracula, but I love the story of Dick Tracy. Have you got a favourite John?”
John: “It’s a Cock Out.”
Probably enough said there!
My next question was directed to Lindsay: What is it like working with a group of actors who are not necessarily dance trained?
Lindsay: “Working with non-dancer bodies adds a nice element to it. Often dancers pick up habits that are harder to undo than to teach a non-dancer body.”
One of the greatest aspects of your shows is that adults and kids can come along and, a lot of the time, adults enjoy it more than the children! How do you go about achieving this?
Matt: “We make stuff that isn’t directed at kids; it’s not kids theatre. The silliness and stupidity are always at the centre of it and that translates.”
John: “It’s not intellectual. It’s about tapping in to that universal humour.”
Le Navet Bete admitted that this may be their most risqué show yet, hinting that there are a few graphic jokes and some “bluer” humour. As pantos often teeter on the brink of lude humour and Le Navet Bete are known for being a bit “naughty” in their shows, this did not come as a particular shock.
Matt: “We get away with lots of stuff; being a bit naughty, being a bit risky; I’m not always sure how! As long as it’s funny, as long as it’s tongue-in-cheek and done with a twinkle in our eye!”
Lindsay: “I feel like your audiences are always in on the joke. The kids are loving the fact that they’re witnessing something that ordinarily they wouldn’t be able to witness.”
Nick: “Kids love seeing adults being naughty. At school, you’ve got all these rules you have to follow and teachers aren’t naughty. With our shows, we’re adults, behaving like naughty kids and they love it!”
Matt: “We do put a notice up on the door as you come in, saying ‘This performance contains pyrotechnics, strobe lighting and words that sound rude but aren’t.’ So we’ll just do the same thing!”
John’s suggestion to change it to “jokes that sound disgusting but it’s just your smutty mind” went down well with the Bete boys, and me, but probably won’t end up on the Athenaeum’s theatre doors!
My final question produced a long low whistle and a beat of silence as Le Navet Bete considered their response.
A huge part of your company’s identity is the South West; you’ve trained in the South West, you live in the South West. What do you think makes this area so special?
Matt: “I think it’s the audiences and their love for home-grown work and home-grown anything. People are really proud of stuff that is South West-made and South West-delivered. It’s regional work for regional people.”
Pointing out of the window at the view over the hills, Le Navet Bete were quick to praise the beauty of the local area and Matt joked that director John works “50% more effectively with a view”.
They are looking forward to being back at the Plymouth Athenaeum for this year’s show as it is such a “unique theatre” with a “great history of panto”. As with each of their Christmas shows, tickets are selling fast due to the power of their local following. I asked if there was anything they felt new audiences should know about their background, their company name or their shows. Matt responded:
“The shows are brilliantly fun and as with all types of theatre, especially ours, take the risk and you’ll enjoy it.”
View the trailer for Aladdin below and call The Barbican Theatre on 01752 267131 to book your tickets.
To find out more about Le Navet Bete and their touring shows, visit their website.