King Arthur

Le Navet Bete and John Nicholson
Le Navet Bete
York Theatre Royal

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Al Dunn, Matt Freeman and Nick Bunt in King Arthur Credit: The Other Richard
Nick Bunt, Matt Freeman and Al Dunn in King Arthur Credit: The Other Richard
Al Dunn, Matt Freeman and Nick Bunt in King Arthur Credit: The Other Richard

Before settling in to watch the latest production from physical comedy company Le Navet Bete, I have a brief chat in the foyer with a young lad who’s seen several of their past shows. He rattles off risqué puns and daft character names which have stuck in his head ever since seeing the troupe’s versions of classic tales like Treasure Island and The Three Musketeers.

I, on the other hand, am a newcomer to the world of LNB, and this conversation can’t quite prime me for what ensues as, within five minutes of the show’s opening, one of the trio (Matt Freeman) is prancing across the stage to Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” in a flesh-coloured, skin-tight onesie complete with a dangling and neon-pink willy.

In a cartoonish version of medieval Britain, we meet three lowly squires—Edgar, Osbert and Dave—who have drunkenly promised to stage a spectacular theatrical performance in praise of young King Arthur’s amazing exploits. Problem is, he’s a bored teenager, Merlin is a dotty pensioner obsessed with laundry (don’t ask) and all the other denizens of Camelot are distinctly lacking in legendary exploits.

The first half of the show recounts the squires’ attempts to gather any material at all from this barmy but banal lot—and to train themselves as actors. It culminates with a series of disguises and some witty play on the fact that the dozens of characters have to be portrayed by just the three actors. After the interval, we see the show within a show, where the characters the squires have met become transformed into figures of legend—some familiar (Merlin and Morgana) and some pretty obscure to any but the most seasoned Arthurian swot (I can’t be the only audience member to whom Sir Balin and his brother Balan were unfamiliar).

I found myself blinking in disbelief at times—like with the opening business with the detachable genitalia, I’d wonder how we found ourselves here. But there are lots of really fun moments: the “acting training” undertaken by the three is accompanied by a splendidly uplifting parody of training montage music, and elsewhere familiar pop songs are given entertaining medieval settings by composer and sound designer Jonny Wharton. Overall, the sense of camaraderie and silliness carries the show forward with momentum.

Freeman is an energetic tumbler, and there are some impressive acrobatics from the whole company. Al Dunn is most often in the role of the sensible go-between, but also shines in a range of exaggerated characters (and accents). Nick Bunt, like the other two, shows range and physical versatility, as both lolling, spoiled King Arthur and two very different versions of Mordred: one innocent and friendly, the other, in the retelling of the legend, a grotesque teenager.

All this is executed with great skill and directed with clarity by John Nicholson. Fi Russell’s sets and costumes help keep straight the intricacies of who’s playing whom (playing whom), and make possible a range of physical and sight gags. This has the production values (lighting by Stuart Billinghurst included) suggestive of the sort of budget a pantomime would work with. That it’s touring the country, only staying one or two nights in most venues, is logistically impressive. In fact, it’s the apparently simple things that are perhaps the most impressive here: the slickness with which costume changes are effected, the clockwork machinery of getting one actor off stage in time for them to re-emerge as another character, the smooth stage management of props and people.

The script tells its convoluted story well, but on the other hand, the puns and gags felt at times like a first pass rather than the honed wordplay of the best of the genre. The bits that ‘go wrong’ felt a bit tired to me, especially in what is otherwise such a well-oiled machine—but then I have been spoiled by watching, in Berwick Kaler and co, some of the best pantomime performers in the land. The script is not really the focus here, with the trio instead embracing a plethora of silly walks, random dance moves and general gurning: basically, the joyous humour of grown-ups being daft.

As a result, it’s a family show but aimed more at children of an age where willies and silly poses are inherently funny. I’m not sure which of these characters and puns will stick in the mind of the youngster I chatted with, though. Perhaps not classic Navet for my first taste, but an energetic and likeable set of performances all round.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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