Napoleon Disrobed, Arcola Theatre

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by Laura Kressly

What would happen if Napoleon didn’t die on Saint Helena? What if he managed to not be imprisoned at all? This amusing Monty Python-esque, revisionist history suggests that with his doppelganger in exile, Napoleon tries to regain power in Belgium but is thwarted by supporter disbelief, poverty and the love of a melon seller. The comedy is punchy but the story is sparse, making for a joyful but baffling show.

The Told by an Idiot script is too heavy on sketch and much too light on plot. A largely unrelated University Challenge preamble, whilst amusing, isn’t threaded through the rest of the story, rendering its presence inexplicable. The overriding premise takes too long to emerge due to lack of exposition and for a good quarter of the play, it’s totally unclear what is going on. Two actors aided by props and costume changes play all the characters coherently and with engagement but there’s only so much they can do to flesh out the so-thin-it’s-practically-transparent story.

Though Paul Hunter as Napoleon is effectively the lead, he’s admirably supported by Ayesha Antoine as his lover and other roles. But of the two, she is much more interesting to watch. Hunter’s brand of comedy is that typically dry and upper-middle class kind like you see on TV, but with a touch more slapstick and self-deprecation. Antoine, on the other hand, has impressive range and nuance. She’s unquestionably the star of the show.

Michael Vale’s delightfully surprising design gives Antoine a run for her money, however. Simple but versatile, the set aids the comedy without overwhelming it. Though it doesn’t look like much initially, the physical function is more important here than the aesthetic.

There’s a lot to like about this show, but its focus on getting laughs in individual moments means the narrative arc is neglected. Only a little work is needed to tighten up the script and give the story more substance, as the core ideas are sound ones.

Napoleon Disrobed runs through 10 March.

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