December 10, 2015
Patrick Barlow had an unexpected hit on his hands when he wrote the brilliant four person play The 39 Steps in 2005 for the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It then transferred to the Tricycle Theatre in 2006, subsequently moving to the West End and playing at the Criterion Theatre for nine years before closing in September 2015, making it the fifth-longest running West End play of all time. In an attempt to recreate the formula, Ben Hur also uses just four people amidst a ‘cast of thousands’. But does this Biblical epic succeed?
The simple answer to that question is yes and no, but for the vital reason – as mentioned in a post-show Q&A by the actors – that were it to transfer to the West End, there would be numerous alterations to the playtext in terms of narrative and approach. As it currently stands, the audience are welcomed into the Tricycle Theatre by the delightfully friendly Daniel Vale (John Hopkins), a man who has apparently written, directed and taken the leading role in this production of Ben Hur. He proceeds to welcome all the cast to the stage before the play officially ‘begins’. Naturally this allows for a fair amount of play-within-a-play hijinks as the theatre company struggles under the weight of their epic production.
It’s Hopkins himself who notes during the post-show Q&A that some audience members would prefer more backstory of the characters whereas others hope for a more streamlined show. In our opinion, we’d prefer more of the latter in its current incarnation, though that’s not to say that with a bit of tweaking everything could stand as is. After all, anything not quite right in the show can be blamed on 'Daniel Vale'.
The biggest marvel of Ben Hur is the ambition that goes into staging such a play. The film runs for three and a half hours, features sea battles, chariot races and even an orgy. How on earth can that be translated to a small off-West End theatre that delights in more small scale productions? Well, that’s the beauty of the theatre! The costumes are all brilliant – we’re still smiling at the slightly-too-short tunic - whilst a set-piece involving the entire audience is an absolutely barnstorming way to bring in the interval and had us in floods of tears, it’s just a shame that other moments don’t quite match up, with scenes occasionally going on too long. But then, thinking about it now, perhaps that's yet more satire of the Biblical epic genre..?
There are vast swathes of Patrick Barlow's Ben Hur script devoted to visual gags, puns and silly pop culture references, which gain numerous laughs from the audience, whilst the character of Jesus (Ben Jones) is always welcome amidst the oft-chaotic proceedings. The cast are all on fine form, especially Hopkins, whilst Alix Dunmore, Jones and Richard Durden rotate through a raft of other characters and quick changes. Movement director Sian Williams certainly earns her money!
In terms of staging, it’s a difficult thing for the theatre to get right; too professional and it won’t be seen as deliberately amateurish but too amateur, then people may want their money back. As it is, there’s a neat blend of the two with some camels, boats and yes, even chariots making an appearance. The best gag of the evening (well, our favourite at least) is definitely the staging of the Sermon on the Mount and director Tim Carroll is deserving of plaudits for figuring out how on earth to stage such a production in north London. As a relatively inexpensive route to the theatre, Ben Hur is a bargain for family audiences and frequently funny, representing a great night out. True, it is hit and miss at times, but it’s still more than the worth price of admission with cast and crew clearly extremely passionate about what they’re putting on. Just don’t go in expecting a completely polished show…yet.
Planning an event? Get in touch
Here at Sternberg Clarke we know how to handle a challenge and we stop at nothing to ensure your event is a night – or day – to remember. Check out our create page and learn more about how we can customise your entertainment to match your needs.
Thinking about booking one of our many talented music acts? Visit our contact page and send us a message.
By Henry Fosdike