Ben Hur, Tricycle Theatre, review: ‘Puns and belly laughs aplenty’

Jon Hopkins and Richard Durden in Ben Hur at the Tricycle Theatre. Picture: Mark Douet.

Jon Hopkins and Richard Durden in Ben Hur at the Tricycle Theatre. Picture: Mark Douet. - Credit: Archant

Four brilliantly versatile actors pull off this hammed up version of the sword and sandals epic, says Bridget Galton.

There are groanworthy puns, silly gags and belly laughs aplenty in this boiled down, hammed up version of the sword and sandals epic.

Framed as a shoestring production by an amateur theatre company, General Lew Wallace’s story of a Roman prince who becomes a galley slave then trimphs in the Circus Maximus is interspersed with the bickering rivalry between a self-aggrandizing actor/manager and his troupe.

In his work with the National Theatre of Brent, and at the Tricyle with the phenomenally successful The 39 Steps, writer Patrick Barlow has long enjoyed pricking the bubble of thespian pomposity and yanking back the wizard’s curtain to expose theatrical artifice. He also loves testing performers’ mettle with multiple roles. Here four brilliantly versatile actors pull off the story, often by pulling off wigs, beards and hats mid-scene to hilarious effect.

At one stage the audience is co-opted as galley slaves and given lines to shout out. In another the lone actress alternates three roles with head-spinning effect. The famous chariot race is staged with dummy horses driven by lawnmowers - the smallness of the cast evidently boosted the costume and set budget,

The portentous tone of William Wyler’s 1959 film lends itself well to a treatment that’s one part panto, two parts Carry On, with a dash of Monty Python.

There are saggy bits in Tim Carroll’s production as plot takes over from frenzy, and some of Barlow’s witty wordplay will go over the head of the under 10s. But while the periodic appearances of Jesus - we get the nativity and the resurrection - are funny, the Messiah is something of the straight guy here, making this oddly appropriate Christmas fare. Highly recommended as a adult treat you can safely take kids along to.

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Rating: 4/5 stars

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