You might imagine any attempt to send up a biblical epic – especially one about a character who just happened to live at the same time as Christ – would inevitably be in the shadow of Life of Brian, but in truth this spoof Ben Hur owes more to The Play That Goes Wrong than to Monty Python. Presented by the Tricycle Theatre in association with Fiery Angel, Fiery Dragons and The Watermill Theatre (the participating companies threaten to outnumber the actors) the show is, in time honoured-fashion, as much a spoof of overly earnest (but underly competent) actors as of the material itself.
If The Play That Goes Wrong works because we all know the kind of clunky sub-Agatha Christie effort they’re struggling with, here we have a rather well-known film, which many of us will no doubt renew our acquaintance with over Christmas. It has, of course, an epic setting and a cast of thousands, so who would be foolhardy enough to tackle it on stage? Step forward Daniel Vale of the modestly named Daniel Vale Theatre Company, promising us a chariot race with real chariots and a sea battle with real water.
The pompous MGM biblical epic-speak of the original gives the cast plenty to get their teeth into, with avalanches of prepositions tumbling over each other on their way out of the actors’ mouths. The puns come thick and fast – Hur laments his “long gone silver”, and it was a safe bet Messala would be offered chicken at some point – as do the visual and sound gags, from clunky scene changes to laughable visual effects (though admittedly, the sea battle did have real water) to sound cues that are mistimed, unnaturally abrupt or the wrong sound altogether.
It’s an old theatrical saw that it takes great skill to achieve the appearance of incompetence like this – whether or not that’s true, the effect here is often very funny. The comedy is undeniably broad, at times recalling Morecambe and Wise staging one of the plays wot Ernie wrote – you almost expect one actor to cry “What’s the point in going on?” and another to reply “Well we might as well, we’ve all learnt the lines…” Moreover, the law of diminishing returns applies after a while, especially to the repeated gag of the actors stumbling over their words, but the flipside of that is that if you don’t like one gag, there’ll be another one along before you know it.
John Hopkins is gloriously pompous and earnest, both as actor Daniel Vale and Hur, the lead role he’s given himself. Ben Jones amuses both as the (implausibly clean-shaven) messiah and the very naughty boy Messala. Richard Durden could do more with his various older roles, both male and female, but Alix Dunmore is skilful and appealing in the many roles she is required to take on, often in quick succession.
As the tagline to Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men In Tights puts it, the legend had it coming.