|Ben Hur, Watermill Theatre, Newbury, review|
|Written by news desk - telegraph.co.ukm|
Dominic Cavendish reviews Patrick Barlow's very silly adaptation of Ben Hur, with a cast of only four.
My, but this is very silly. We knew it would be, of course. How could a cast of four, jostling together on one of our smallest stages, tackle Ben Hur? However you approach it, whether in the form of General Lew Wallace’s original 1880 novel or Hollywood’s behemoth film version of 1959, filmed to the then record-breaking tune of $15m - it’s a story that’s as biblically epic as they come. Bonkers idea!
Patrick Barlow - a familiar face from The National Theatre of Brent and responsible too for that larky long-runner The 39 Steps - has joined forces, as director and writer, with Sean Foley, who gave the West End the Morecambe and Wise homage, The Play What I Wrote. You know where they’re coming from but even so, it’s faintly amazing how tongue-in-cheek the fruit of their labours is.
Anyone seeking any vestige of reverence will need to look elsewhere. Though the programme states categorically - and presumably for sound legal reasons - that this show bears no relation to the MGM classic, it plainly summons memories of it only to trample them underfoot in a puerile rush of incorrigible japery. This is an evening emptied of meaning and filled with mock-meaningful looks.
In a way, the source inspiration here is “the rude mechanicals” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The basic premise is that a motley crew of thesps are biting off far more than they can chew and soldiering on despite being woefully ill-equipped.
The sets are flimsy, the accents wobbly, the wigs fall off whenever they can, cues are more missed than not. We are placed in the inexpert hands of “Compagnie de Alexander Berkin” - a ham actor of irrepressible egotism. John Hopkins who plays him, and Hur, has hunked-up specially for the part, and with his glistening sinews could give Charlton Heston, or at least a Chippendale, a run for their money. In his skimpy toga, he almost passes muster as competent next to a clueless actress fresh from a dance course at Dudley Tech (Elizabeth Cadwallader), an Edinburgh Fringe veteran (Nick Haverson) and a panic-stricken bloke from the Watermill (Andy Williams) who has stepped in at short notice. These supporting buffoons all row for dear life in a host of roles, but cheap stuffed mannequins are relied upon too to bulk up the numbers. The chariot race? That’s best left as a surprise but it won’t be winning any awards. I don’t believe anyone died in the making of this venture but I imagine there was plenty of corpsing in rehearsals.
Sometimes it’s frightfully funny, sometimes it’s just frightful. I think that’s the point. It’s an over-extended sketch flogged to within an inch of its life. There are jokes so lame not even Christ could heal them. “Chicken, Messala?” runs one of the gags inevitably directed at Ben Hur’s old bosom-buddy turned Roman Empire stooge when he comes visiting. If you don’t like 'em like that, steer well clear.