Clowning troupe put their acrobatic spin on the best festive story of all
It's a story most of us know extremely well, so it takes courage and imagination to mess with it successfully. But even the Nativity is fair game for some inventive comedy treatment in the hands of theatrical clowning troupe Le Navet Bete.
That's not to say that the Westcountry ensemble's interpretation is irreverent or disrespectful; it's just plain funny.
For example, Mary and Joseph find shelter at the Hollyday Inn; the three wise men are a jazz band. And the shepherds? They bear an uncanny resemblance to a certain rural Westcountry singing group.
"We have put our own stamp on it, but it is still the Nativity as it is in the Bible – apart from the ending. In our version King Herod comes good," reveals the company's Al Dunn ahead of their pre-Christmas run of The Greatest Story... Never Told, which opens next weekend, for the second year running, at Plymouth's Barbican Theatre.
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"The great thing about the Nativity is that it is a really good story with some terrific characters, and that is where we find the comedy. We do have to always be sensitive to the material, and that can be a challenge – especially as we don't have any women in the group.
"We worked quite hard to get the Virgin Mary right because we didn't want her to be like a man in drag," adds Al.
He and his comedy partners Nick Bunt, Matt Freeman and Dan Bianchi – aided and abetted by their producer and technician Alex White – met when they were studying on the Plymouth University theatre and performance course, when it was based at Rolle College in Exmouth, graduating six or seven years ago.
When their clowning idea began to blossom they established their four distinctive and individual characters and these have endured, while they have continued to develop their ideas and expertise, and expand their fanbase which stretches as far as Mexico.
This autumn Le Navet Bete – which translates roughly as "the stupid turnip" – enjoyed a successful residency at Exeter's Bike Shed Theatre with their established shows Napoleon: A Defence and Extravaganza, plus brand new cowboy-inspired production Once Upon A Time... In A Western.
Multi-roling is the ensemble's strong point; there are some 170 characters involved.
"We all play lots of different parts. I play a wise man, a shepherd, a sheep, Joseph and Englebert Humperdinck," confesses Al. Yes, that's right – Englebert Humperdinck. How intriguing.
There's quite a lot of audience interaction involved and the show is suitable for all ages.
"It's for the whole family – everyone from around four to 90; we layer all the gags and jokes so that they work on different levels," he says.
"Last year we had a lot of children coming to see the show and they absolutely loved it."
During the coming week they are holding workshops and performances specifically for school groups.
Because it's the second year that the show is having a pre-Christmas run at Plymouth's Barbican Theatre, Al and the chaps have been adding fresh elements during rehearsals.
"We're making it more physical and there will be lots of acrobatics," he says. "Gabriel comes swinging in on silks."
The theatre building it getting a Navet Bete-style makeover too.
"There's a small studio space as you come in and we are turning that into an kind of Bedouin inn – halfway between a traditional Christmas scene and a stable – where you can get a glass of mulled wine," adds Al. "We're really looking forward to it."
The Greatest Story... Never Told by Le Navet Bete is at The Barbican Theatre, Plymouth from December 7 to 23 (not Mondays) at various times, with both matinee and evening performances. For more information and to book, call the box office on 01752 267131 or visit www.barbicantheatre.co.uk.