400 – A Comedy
Theatre Royal Plymouth
Running Time – 1 hour 20 minutes – no interval
Theatre Royal Plymouth Box Office – 01752 267222
REVIEW – 17 June 2021
First and foremost, it is brilliant to be back in a theatre – albeit with certain restrictions. I applaud Theatre Royal Plymouth for their attention to everyone’s welfare and for providing a smooth and well organised evening in difficult circumstances.
2020 was a special year for so many things. Big birthdays, anniversaries and events were all planned. And dashed. Among these was the Mayflower 400 – the 400th anniversary of the sailing of The Mayflower to the United States. 400-A Comedy was conceived as part of the celebrations – put on ice, it has now been given a life as theatres gradually re-open.
For those who don’t know, Le Navet Bete (or The Daft Turnip) are a highly original and off-the-wall troupe of four actors from Devon who have become a very successful company on the theatre circuit throughout the UK. Their shows are notable for the re-telling of stories in their inimitable way – so, ‘The Three Musketeers’ and ‘Treasure Island’ have become staples of their repertoire – using many costumes, silly props, quick changes and multiple characters for each actor – you won’t have seen the like before. They are bonkers in the best possible way.
This show sets itself out as an improvised look at 400 years of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States and starts with some tongue-in-cheek work with the audience – ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’ style. The audience is encouraged to offer suggestions when asked and a story is formed from their responses – which are often heavily hinted at by the performers. It’s all good-natured. Eventually a story develops as aliens take over the fearsome four and we are taken from spaceship to stage and back again …… I did, I am afraid lose the plot. Along the way we have cross-dressing, aliens, chases, people dressed as pillar boxes, hot dogs, horses and a very, very high unicycle. There is also some very effective ‘disappearing person’ illusions to throw into the mix. It’s lunacy and amusing, but never reached the levels of hilarity they often do – though the ‘Marilyn Monroe skirt in the air’ moment is utterly priceless.
I think the lack of a really good storyline held the production back; with their previous shows there is no problem with plot – although it is much tampered with – but here there wasn’t a coherent whole. Comedian and writer, Tony Hawkes, is credited with writing input and long-term collaborator, John Nicolson directs. The improvised nature of the piece rather ran out of steam as did the subject matter – the conclusion that there was a correlation between making friends with aliens and migrants from the Mayflower was a tad tenuous.
So, not an unalloyed success, but entertaining enough, if rather too long for the material on offer. All that being said, Le Navet Bete are a welcome tonic from the gloom of the last 16 months and know how to lighten the mood with their madcap capers.