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The Theatreguide.London Review

Ben Hur
Tricycle Theatre  Winter 2015-2016

A celebration of the imaginative fun and just plain silliness theatre is capable of, this is the rare sort of family show that the whole family really can enjoy. And even though it runs out of steam before the end, kids and grown-ups will have had a full quota of laughs by then. 

Creator Patrick Barlow began his career in street theatre, and through his years in the self-styled National Theatre of Brent and as writer of the long-running West End hit The Thirty-Nine Steps, he has never lost sight of the fact that it's all make-believe and that's a big part of the fun. 

Barlow is a master of a sub-genre of comedy that I have always been a sucker for the mock-epic in which fully professional performers pretend to be less talented than they are and taking on a project too big for them. 

So here four good actors play well-meaning but inept actors playing all the roles in Ben Hur, with the rushed costume changes, missed cues, recalcitrant props and dissension in the ranks a big part of the joke. 

John Hopkins plays the egocentric star playing the lead, while Alix Dunmore, Richard Durden and Ben Jones play Everyone Else, often with barely enough time to run offstage and change costumes, and sometimes in conversation with themselves. 

Dunmore in particular has little more than a rapid change of wigs to enable her to be Judah's sister, his girlfriend, a seductive Spanish dancer, a male galley slave and the actress madly trying to keep up with these roles, and we are equally delighted when she pulls it off and when she 'accidentally' grabs the wrong wig. 

Barlow's street performer roots are evident when he calls for audience involvement to achieve the grand sea battle that ends Act One, with those in the stalls rowing away as galley slaves while the circle shouts abuse at them and the onstage actors wrestle with life-size rag doll pirates. 

(And how often in life will you hear the interval announcement 'Please return all pirates to the stage'?) 

Barlow adds another level of comedy this time around by introducing a lot of wordplay, as the supposedly inept actors keep getting lost in all the convoluted syntax of their 'authentic' lines, the loss of the Hur family fortune is described as 'long-gone silver' or Roman debauchery includes 'nearly nude nubile Nubians'.

And adding even further to the fun, the cast all dip into their repertoires of funny voices, and you might catch echoes of Bluebottle, Baldrick and the Muppets' Swedish chef in some of the crowd scenes. 

Much credit must go to the actors and director Tim Carroll, who keep the high comic energy flowing for so long and who all no doubt contributed some bits of business to the mayhem. 

Maybe this kind of joke really can't be sustained much beyond an hour, because the second act does begin to feel a little too much like just more of the same. Even what should be the high point, the famed chariot race, is a letdown, and the wrapping up of the plot is perfunctory.

(It may have been just in the performance I saw that the chariots kept getting in each other's way, leading to clumsy and unfunny onstage chaos, but the scene needs re-staging and re-rehearsal.) 

But those are cavils. Accept that this is all going to be very, very silly and that no gag is too low or ancient to be included, and you'll have a ball.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Ben Hur - Tricycle Theatre 2015 

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