The set, at the start of this stage adaptation of Ben-Hur, is worryingly bare. There was, to get us in the mood, suitably majestic music piping through the auditorium’s speakers beforehand. But when even a note in the programme almost gleefully admits, “… no horses, no desert, no chariots, no Roman galleys…” I started to wonder quite how this epic story was going to play out.
If the theatrical adaptation of The 39 Steps used four actors to portray 130 characters, Ben Hur goes considerably further, with ‘Daniel Vale’ (John Hopkins), a man in a play within this play, asserting the re-enactment of 70,000 “historically accurate” characters. This said assertion was made with a knowing smile, establishing a decent rapport with the audience that held until the end of the performance.
There are more than a few running gags that are repeated to the point that they become slightly laboured, and other punchlines are deliberately set up to unite the audience in groaning at their mediocrity, rather like those vacuous Christmas cracker ‘jokes’.
It works, though – for the most part. I was impressed by everyone in the company and their ability to deliver lines at such a rapid, but still decipherable pace. Certain phrases are also intentionally slightly mispronounced, to great comic effect, and I would imagine this would have been quite challenging to achieve. Les Dawson slightly mis-keying on the piano back in the day comes to mind – it is more difficult, I am reliably informed, to get it slightly wrong when one has been trained (whether professionally or self-taught) to get it right. The comic timing is nothing short of admirable.
It is so cleverly scripted that it would work fine as a radio play. Refusing to ever properly recognise the limitations of staging, say, row upon row of, um, rowers (the lameness of those words are entirely my own), it punches above its weight with brisk confidence. The ending, however, in an era of Noises Off, The Play That Goes Wrong and, thanks to the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, a revival of Harlequinade, is distinctly unoriginal and comes across as lazy. The farcical conclusion is still amusing, however, but whether any of it will leave you cracking up is dependent on your predilection for goofiness.
Energetic to the last, with very quick costume changes throughout (and just a tiny, tiny bit of audience participation), it is harmless fun. It relentlessly makes light of the now archaic style of the original Lew Wallace novel (for the completely uninitiated, it’s rather like reading works by Jane Austen or J. R. R. Tolkien). But not even playwright Patrick Barlow could remove Jesus of Nazareth from even this radical reimagining of Ben-Hur. Astutely, the play presents Christ as empathetic and forgiving, but in doing so the humour is almost suspended, leaving me wanting this particular Christ to be on His merry way so the comedy can resume.
This is an unsentimental rework of a tale usually unpacked with at least some degree of reverence, transformed into a comedy that is rather like Marmite: to be loved or otherwise loathed. I personally fall into the ‘loved it’ category, and judging by the enthusiastic response from the audience at curtain call, many others do too. I certainly preferred it to the thinly veiled Sunday School lesson that is the three-and-a-half-hour movie…
Review by Chris Omaweng
Written by Patrick Barlow
Based on the novel by General ‘Lew’ Wallace
Directed by Tim Carroll
Designer: Michael Taylor; Sound Designers: Ben & Max Ringham;
Lighting Designer: Mark Doubleday; Movement Director: Siân Williams
Cast: Alix Dunmore, Richard Durden, John Hopkins and Ben Jones.
They said it was unachievable!
They said it couldn’t be done!
But now the team behind the Olivier and Tony award-winning comedy The 39 Steps are BACK with a sensational, awe-inspiring and unforgettable staging of General Lew Wallace’s timeless classic Ben Hur.
The greatest book ever penned is brought to the stage by a towering team of just four actors, turning the Tricycle stage into one of the most authentic versions of ancient Rome ever seen.
Complete with stunning combat (featuring the latest 3D technology), a 103% bona fide chariot race (with REAL CHARIOTS), an authentic sea battle (with REAL WATER) and a decadent and UNEXPURGATED Roman orgy (suitable for all ages), Ben Hur is the perfect winter tonic guaranteed to stir your very soul.
Thursday 19th November 2015 – Saturday 9th January 2016
269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7J