Daniel Vale of the make-believe Daniel Vale Theatre Company gleefully boasts that his cast of four will play the 70,000 characters of Ben Hur with historical accuracy. Even if you don’t know the epic biblical 1950s film, Ben Hur evokes images of chariot races, the glittering bare chests of slaves and sea battles – not a cast of four with a minimal set in the Tricycle Theatre. It’s okay though, says Daniel, because they rehearsed the chariot race with mechanical horses in the car park beforehand.
Aged ten, Patrick Barlow was seduced by epics that adults struggle to wade through. Decades later, his production of General Lew Wallace’s 1880s novel Ben Hur is not the slavish dedication to the original you might expect, but a daft, playful comedy. Judah Ben Hur, wrongly and bitterly sent by Roman commander Messala to be a galley slave, plots his revenge in a no-rules chariot race. Meanwhile, the carpenter’s son performs perplexing, impossible feats and promises a new world of love and kindness. In the hands of the Daniel Vale Theatre Company, the complex, elaborate script breaks down into absurdity, broken scene changes and an audience wondering what Daniel Vale did to annoy the sound man.
As well as John Hopkins playing the smug Daniel Vale playing Ben Hur (the “lead”, Daniel reminds us) with a tickling deep-voiced seriousness and a wistful stare into the distance, Alix Dunmore treats us to an array of well-formed characters – from an on-edge Mary to the heavily-accented love interest Esther. Ben Jones wafts on and off stage to twinkling music as a high-voiced Jesus and stomps back on as the armour-clad villain Messala, while Richard Durden appears as a host of worn-down characters who disproportionately bear the brunt, as well as Quintus Arriu, the Roman admiral with a heart.
But Ben Hur only really has one joke. Sure, it tells that one joke in many different ways and expertly so: three wise men stupidly ponder how wise they are atop naff puppet-camels; lines are deliberately and elaborately messed up with a ridiculous determination to plod on; and, eventually, the obtuse, stubborn, big-headed Daniel Vale has his cast revolt and his set collapse around where he stands, hands on his hips, always a bloated hero. Though Daniel and his cast’s sure-footed pandemonium is compelling at first, with an endearing groan-worthiness, not even the best joke can keep the audience laughing on repeat.
With Patrick Barlow’s well-received flair for theatrical miracles following his hit The 39 Steps, Tim Carroll’s mesmerisingly slick direction and its clever cast, Ben Hur is far flung from the embarrassing, misguided chaos that their make-believe Daniel Vale Theatre Company stir up. Yet they are closer to it than they might think. At its best, the disastrous epic-on-steroids is side-splitting. If only it were at its best more often.
Ben Hur plays at the Tricycle Theatre until 9 January 2016. For more information and tickets, see the Tricycle Theatre website. Photo Mark Douet.