Le Navet Bete return to Plymouth's Barbican Theatre with Napoleon: A Defence
IS IT comedy? Is it theatre? Is it clowning?
Who cares. Audiences are too busy laughing to worry about how to categorise Le Navet Bete.
The Devon troupe of four performers are back in Plymouth today and tomorrow with Napoleon: A Defence.
The Barbican Theatre regulars have developed the show over the years so the story and number of characters have expanded.
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That means more multiple roles for Nick Bunt, Matt Freeman, Dan Bianchi and Al Dunn. Just don't ask them how many.
"I play Sweet William, PA to the Duke of Wellington, a circus clown-type tea boy," says Al, starting to tick off his personal list.
"I'm one of the French soldiers, one of the English military band, one of the English officers and who else? Er, I think that's it for me," he adds, sounding none too certain.
The prominent roles played by the others are Private Party (Matt), Major Blunt (Dan) and Welly (as in Duke of; Nick).
Those English characters were there when Napoleon was first added to the troupe's list of shows. Arts Council money helped the troupe expand and develop the piece.
"We invested six weeks in the show to create more of a running narrative, as well as adding the French soldiers to the English idiots," says Al.
"We always tweak our shows, even the ones that we have developed. We usually find something that works with the audiences, that we add in or expand, and something that doesn't that we take out."
As for the original idea, "that came from Napoleon himself – how much of a fun character he is.
"It's the 'short man' syndrome, the 'Napoleon complex', which is great for a clowning troupe. The plump, short man full of self-importance giving orders to a tall one – that's a great image to work with.
"That's where the massive hat comes from. Then we started looking at the idea of soldiers and war and a bit of history."
The story now stands something like this: a team of British soldiers is on a mission to track down Napoleon and bring him to England. Four rubbish French troops discover the plan and try to find the great little man themselves.
There's a boat, Josephine, a live cannon, some wonderful inventive props and costuming, live music and lots of physical theatre and clowning.
The company's own story began when friends studying theatre and performance at Plymouth University put on a show for their final piece in 2006 – and got the highest marks in the history of the course.
There have been a couple of changes of personnel since as Le Navet Bete (French for 'the daft turnip') have developed a mix of outdoor and indoor shows, picking up awards and touring internationally.
They are fresh back from Dublin where they performed one of their earlier shows, Extravaganza; "basically four idiots in a space going mad, with unicycles", says Al, helpfully.
Next they are waiting on an Arts Council decision about backing to expand Once Upon A Time... In A Western. That would see the existing show expand from 60 to 90 minutes with an outside director – John Nicholson of acclaimed comic theatre specialists Peepolykus – at the helm.
Barbican Theatre audiences can expect to see that one in October.
The Arts Council involvement proves that, whatever Le Navet Bete does, it's art – and it's worth supporting.
Napoleon: A Defence is at the Barbican Theatre today and tomorrow.