Dick Tracy production photo

Dick Tracy at the Plymouth Athenaeum Theatre

It was a day of firsts for us when we went to see Dick Tracy in Plymouth, as we’d not been to the Plymouth Athenaeum, or seen Exeter based theatre group Le Navet Bete in action before.

The Plymouth Athenaeum

Whenever we go to a new venue we like to have a bit of an explore while we wait for the performance to start (or at the very least take a meandering route to the bar!). The Athenaeum has had an interesting history. It was founded back in 1812 as a charitable society dedicated to the promotion of learning in the fields of science, technology, literature and art.

The original building was a stunning Grecian columned structure, which sadly was destroyed in The Blitz. You can see pictures of the original building near the upper bar. Today the Athenaeum occupies nearly the same spot in the city and continues to support the same cultural endeavours. It also houses a 340-seat theatre!

Le Navet Bete production of Dick Tracy

Le Navet Bete Dick Tracy ticketsI didn’t know much about the Dick Tracy character in advance of the play. I have a vague memory of watching a cartoon as a child (clearly a repeat, seeing as it apparently came out 20 years before I was born). But the 1990 Warren Beatty film and original comic book have escaped me until now. We’d also not been to a show by Le Navet Bete before either. The group are known for their comedy and are Artists in Residence at the Exeter Phoenix and Associate Artists at the Exeter Northcott Theatre.

Dick Tracy sees the celebrated American detective (complete with iconic yellow coat) taking on crime boss nemesis Big Boy Caprice. Unable to believe the villain has ‘gone legit’ Tracy soon finds himself in hot water with girlfriend Tess, the chief and the city as he sets out on a one-man mission to prove that Big Boy is up to no good.

Dick Tracy Production Photo - the villains
Image: Mark Dawson Photography

The tone of the show was quickly set, with visual humour playing a big part in the production, aided by an imaginative use of props. The comic book heritage of the character was also reflected in a bold graphic set and an opening image reel reminiscent of Adam West’s Batman, with ‘kapows’ aplenty to introduce the backstory. These comic book style flourishes extended to many of the characters, with the villains sporting exaggerated facial features that worked really well on stage.

Wordplay, double-entendres and some carefully crafted puns ensured there was plenty to keep the adults and children amused…even if some jokes may have escaped the audience’s younger members! On its own, this style of humour can be difficult to sustain, but the company cleverly played with the boundary between plot and performance. At times the actors would break character to poke fun at the sets, props and environment around them, becoming the joke rather than performing it – most notably when one of the leading ladies (in mannequin form) started losing limbs faster than the remaining cast could reassemble her.

Dick Tracy production photo
Image: Mark Dawson Photography

There was also plenty of unexpected humour and surreal silliness to keep the audience wondering what could possibly happen next. The sudden appearance of a remote control cat at a moment of heartbreak for the show’s leading lady and some high-flying toast and biscuits being examples of this.

Perhaps one of the most surprising homages was the Les Miserables-style opening to the second act where the four actors reflected on their various stages of triumph and despair in song. This was also the moment where it was really apparent how much Le Navet Bete achieves with so small a cast. It’s easy to forget with the range of colourful costumes, characters and accents on display that there are only four actors in the production. Given I counted at least eleven characters, that’s a lot of quick changing and vocal workouts!

Whilst Dick Tracy may have been the title character it was longsuffering Tess Truelove and bearded femme fatale Careless Whisper that stole the show for us, providing great comedy and melodrama in equal parts.

Tess Truelove Dick Tracy Production Photo
Image: Mark Dawson Photography

It was an unmistakeably fun production, and it was clear throughout that the actors were thoroughly enjoying every moment of it, which makes a huge difference in the theatre. At the end, there was a possible prop malfunction. But I still can’t tell if it was a planned comic mishap included for humour or a smartly ad-libbed response to the perils of live theatre – where things do go wrong. And it’s this style of humour that makes the show so successful, where you are both audience member to the story of the play and to the delivery of the performance, with humour to be found in both layers of the story.

Dick Tracy fight scene
Image: Mark Dawson Photography

Le Navet Bete’s production of Dick Tracy had a five-night run at the Plymouth Athenaeum from 3-7 April 2018.

Find details of upcoming shows at the Plymouth Athenaeum on the Barbican Theatre website.

Find out more about Le Navet Bete including upcoming shows.

Production photography from Dick Tracy by Mark Dawson Photography: www.markdawsonphotos.co.uk

We were provided with complimentary tickets for the show by the Barbican Theatre. As always, all our reviews and write-ups are honest opinions and all views are our own.