Saturday 28th November 2015, matinee
When we spotted the whacky poster for ‘Ben Hur’ at the Tricycle Theatre, we thought something looked familiar, and when we inspected the small print to reveal Patrick Barlow as the writer, we realised that this must be the perfect project for the creator of that legendary theatre group ‘The National Theatre of Brent’. With such classics as ‘Love Upon the Throne’, ‘The Wonder of Sex’ and ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’, all performed by a company of just two, the aim was always to find a subject as solemn and ambitious as possible, and mine it for all the comedy it was worth. As we say, we can see the attraction of Ben Hur, a serious novel which deliberately took the character of Jesus Christ and made him peripheral (and yet so symbolically central) to the story. And as for ambition, what’s not to admire? Not only a legendary chariot race, but sea battles and a setting as wide as the Roman Empire itself. To be fair, this particular version boasts a cast of four.
With Barlow’s alter ego Desmond Olivier Dingle apparently put out to pasture, we have the equally pompous ‘actor manager’ Daniel Vale, brilliantly portrayed by John Hopkins with a heady cocktail of naive enthusiasm, barely concealed vanity and deep insecurity. He is ably assisted by a cast of three, Alix Dunmore, Ben Jones and Richard Durden, who play all the other characters (Vale is of course Ben Hur). There are some great turns from each of them with Ben Jones making a strangely touching Jesus despite all attempts at mockery, Alix Dunmore switching costumes and wigs with alarming alacrity, and Richard Durden switching genders as well. Our only comment would be that with a larger cast, it is much harder to give everyone a sufficiently humourous back-story, and the painful intensity of just two actors is harder to achieve. In a word, these actors are not quite toe-curlingly awful enough.
Having said that there are some fantastic set pieces which fulfill all our expectations of the requisite bathos. The galley scenes (that’s rowing, not cooking) use that old favourite of life-size dummies chained in rows and operated by the cast, and the pitch of absurdity rises sharply when the sea battle commences and dummies are hurled onto the stage in simulated fight scenes and then into the audience, resulting in a stage announcement you don’t hear every day, ‘There will now be a short interval. Please return the pirates to the stage’. We won’t give away the twist with the chariot-race but it doesn’t disappoint. The small touches are also a delight – the classic feathers from a helmet caught in the door, and a rather good baby-tossing scene when the wise men help Mary to hide the baby Jesus from King Herod’s men.
The bizarre thing about this version is that the spirit of the original is not completely diminished – this is very much an affectionately comic version which somehow manages to push the boundaries without entirely abandoning good taste. Thus the ending has Daniel Vale experiencing his own personal ‘Ben Hur’ epiphany when the actor playing Jesus takes the opportunity of the resurrection to deliver a few home truths before presiding over a small miracle of his own.
We have to confess that in places the script is not quite a tight as we would like. There are times when the sheer amount of exposition does detract from the comedy. But this production is full of fun and irreverence, whilst at the same time actually making us look forward to the inevitable Christmas screening of the film. And if you feel the same, how about this piece of unintentional comedy – Leslie Nielson doing a screen test for the part of Mesalla.