Clowns go for their guns on a quest for Wild West buffoonery
There's a lot more to clowning than meets the eye. It's not simply a case of putting on a silly expression, a mad hat, or some over-the-top make-up and throwing yourself around a stage – although those elements can usually be found in all the best clown shows.
Yes, the art of buffoonery is a complex affair, as the inimitable Le Navet Bete troupe will confirm.
The Devon based four-man fun team – Al Dunn, Nick Bunt, Matt Freeman and Dan Bianchi – aided and abetted by their producer and technician Alex White, have spent the summer wowing large festival audiences in the Westcountry and beyond with two of their well-established madcap shows, Napoleon: a Defence and Extravaganza.
Now Le Navet Bete – which translates roughly as "the stupid turnip" – are about to embark on a three-week residency at the intimate and inviting Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter.
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And it's a run that will feature the debut of their wild new adventure for all ages – complete with original live music score – titled Once Upon A Time... In A Western.
"We wanted to explore the cinematic genre of the Western... as four clowns who decide they love Westerns," explains Al.
Currently in development at Exeter's Phoenix Arts Centre, with the aid of the company's third successful Arts Council application within 12 months, their research has involved watching lots of spaghetti westerns, the Fistful of Dollars trilogy, 1990s movies like Unforgiven and Wyatt Earp, Blazing Saddles and a feast of John Wayne movies.
"We all love the music and the sets; the fact that there's always a hero, a sheriff, a barman, a prostitute, railroad workers and a priest with a dodgy background.
"There are guns, holsters, spurs, big hats, saloon doors, a beaten-up piano, and someone is always cheating at cards.
"The John Wayne films have some of the most hilarious dialogue. My favourite quote is 'Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear or a fool from any direction', which is quite fitting, as clowns are the ultimate fools," says Al.
He and his partners in comedy 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. Multi-roling is the ensemble's strongpoint; in the Napoleon show, for example, the four play a host of characters, from the British soldiers on a mission to track down the errant emperor, the four rubbish French soldiers trying to beat them to it, along with the Duke of Wellington, Josephine and the Russians.
With only a couple of weeks before curtain up, the Western show is still in its early stages, but that's quite a normal state of affairs, according to Al, who says that a clown show can never be fine tuned until it is put in front of an audience.
"The biggest challenge is going to be translating cinematography to the theatre," he says.
They are still managing to fit in some extra-curricular activity, including regular schools workshops. Next week the chaps are recording a piece for Dick and Dom's Hoopla! to be shown on the CBBC channel on October 12 – a booking that came in after they were filmed performing in Exeter as part of the Olympic Torch Relay. And the following day they will feature on John Govier's BBC Radio Devon show. Next month they have been invited to take part in BBC Children in Need at Exeter University and the Plymouth Christmas lights switch-on ceremony.
In December they return to the Barbican Theatre, Plymouth for a run of their version of The Nativity – The Greatest Story...Never Told.
"In that I play a wise man, a shepherd, a sheep, Joseph and Englebert Humperdinck," confesses Al.