Watermill - Ben Hur
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Watermill - Ben Hur

22nd June to 28th July 2012.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

Ben Hur. At the Watermill. With four actors. How? What we actually have (and this is where it gets a bit complicated) is four good actors playing four bad actors playing 12,059 characters. The best way I can describe it is the Farndale Avenue Life of Brian.

While the title role is played by handsome dashing Alexander Berkin (played by handsome dashing John Hopkins – I told you it was complicated), the rest of the parts are taken by (real names) Elizabeth Cadwallader, Nick Haverson and Andy Williams and inevitably this leads to chaos and much swapping of wigs and costumes.

The essence of the Farndale Avenue genre of coarse acting is good acting combined with impeccable timing, and we certainly got that, along with impressive props and special effects.

Nick Haverson was wonderfully versatile, ranging from bucolic gatekeeper through Roman centurion to Jesus. The appropriately named and recently qualified actor Sally Wiggins (Elizabeth Cadwallader) displayed her assets well as the love interest, whilst struggling with at least four wigs. Eric Morecambe lookalike Andy Williams played Ted Fletcher, drafted in at short notice to replace an indisposed (or was it deceased?) member of the cast, in a delightful opening scene where he knew none of his words. Alexander Berkin (leader of the Compagnie de Berkin theatre company) struggled manfully to keep the show on the rails.

The first half was hilarious, with the jokes and the slapstick coming thick and fast. The humour tailed off a bit in the second half, but we had the chariot race (sadly without real horses) to compensate.

The play was written and directed by Patrick Barlow and Sean Foley, who both have an impressive pedigree in stage productions, notably with The 39 Steps and The Ladykillers, and I could see the National Theatre of Brent’s influence in the voiceovers.

As a high-budget, no holds barred spectacular, it isn’t quite there (yet), but as a joyful and hilarious night out, and a lesson for amateur groups on how to do coarse acting really well, Ben Hur is unmissable.

PAUL SHAVE

Review from The Daily Telegraph.

Three stars
My, but this is very silly. We knew it would be, of course. How could a cast of four, jostling together on one of our smallest stages, tackle Ben Hur? However you approach it, whether in the form of General Lew Wallace’s original 1880 novel or Hollywood’s behemoth film version of 1959, filmed to the then record-breaking tune of $15m - it’s a story that’s as biblically epic as they come. Bonkers idea!

Patrick Barlow - a familiar face from The National Theatre of Brent and responsible too for that larky long-runner The 39 Steps - has joined forces, as director and writer, with Sean Foley, who gave the West End the Morecambe and Wise homage, The Play What I Wrote. You know where they’re coming from but even so, it’s faintly amazing how tongue-in-cheek the fruit of their labours is.

Anyone seeking any vestige of reverence will need to look elsewhere. Though the programme states categorically - and presumably for sound legal reasons - that this show bears no relation to the MGM classic, it plainly summons memories of it only to trample them underfoot in a puerile rush of incorrigible japery. This is an evening emptied of meaning and filled with mock-meaningful looks.

In a way, the source inspiration here is “the rude mechanicals” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The basic premise is that a motley crew of thesps are biting off far more than they can chew and soldiering on despite being woefully ill-equipped.

The sets are flimsy, the accents wobbly, the wigs fall off whenever they can, cues are more missed than not. We are placed in the inexpert hands of “Compagnie de Alexander Berkin” - a ham actor of irrepressible egotism. John Hopkins who plays him, and Hur, has hunked-up specially for the part, and with his glistening sinews could give Charlton Heston, or at least a Chippendale, a run for their money. In his skimpy toga, he almost passes muster as competent next to a clueless actress fresh from a dance course at Dudley Tech (Elizabeth Cadwallader), an Edinburgh Fringe veteran (Nick Haverson) and a panic-stricken bloke from the Watermill (Andy Williams) who has stepped in at short notice. These supporting buffoons all row for dear life in a host of roles, but cheap stuffed mannequins are relied upon too to bulk up the numbers. The chariot race? That’s best left as a surprise but it won’t be winning any awards. I don’t believe anyone died in the making of this venture but I imagine there was plenty of corpsing in rehearsals.

Sometimes it’s frightfully funny, sometimes it’s just frightful. I think that’s the point. It’s an over-extended sketch flogged to within an inch of its life. There are jokes so lame not even Christ could heal them. “Chicken, Messala?” runs one of the gags inevitably directed at Ben Hur’s old bosom-buddy turned Roman Empire stooge when he comes visiting. If you don’t like 'em like that, steer well clear.

DOMINIC CAVENDISH

Review from The Times.

Three stars
Gather round, children of the digital age, and learn that long before computer-generated fantasy battles, my generation thrilled to huge-cast movies such as Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments, Spartacus and, above all, Ben Hur, with Charlton Heston muscling his way from betrayed Judaean to galley slave to Golgotha convert.

A marvellous essay by Patrick Barlow, famed for his two-man National Theatre of Brent and the long-running The 39 Steps, recalls adoring the film with its 50,000 live extras and 78 horses. As a boy, reading the original book by the otherwise forgotten Civil War general Lew Wallace, Barlow dreamt of making his own version and including the bits Hollywood left out.

Now he has. In two hours, as four performers struggle with wobbly props and endearingly incompetent puppetry, the bijou stage sees an epic tale of love, betrayal and pre-Christian politics, including a Roman sea battle and the famous chariot race. An obvious thread of its humour is a joke on stage pretensions: Barlow frames it as the vanity of one man, John Hopkins, as the hunky, eponymous founder of the Compagnie de Alexander Berkin, cornering the muscular, shirt-off role of the hero (phwoar! as we critics say).

Elizabeth Cadwallader plays a daffy dance graduate cast as two love interests, a sister and assorted galley slaves; over-anxious to introduce her skills when least wanted. An Egyptian sand-dance routine veers disastrously into Riverdance.

Nick Haverson is hilariously kaleidoscopic, not least as a camp Emperor Tiberius. Andy Williams is supposedly a stagehand press-ganged into being assorted soldiers, jailers, a Roman admiral who can’t sit down without garotting himself with his huge breastplate, and Ben Hur’s old Mum, with and without stick-on leprosy.

Williams scores first, drawing non-stop ripples of laughter after an opening scene in which he is too terrified to speak his lines but clings to a plywood column, shaking. In his heavy, black glasses, he looks like the late Eric Morecambe. But then, the co-director, Sean Foley, was responsible for The Play What I Wrote, so no surprise there.

The show works a treat, and it will get even better. The theatre spoof and props disasters are reinforced, though not quite often enough, by beautiful parody of the grand style favoured by General Wallace. “I have not heard my own name spaken for five years,” cries the hero, and “I must unwaken and — er — be to my destiny.”

Bathos is helped by sneaky background use of the Miklós Rósza epic score. And yes, the sea battle is tremendous. And the chariot race, I am happy to say, very silly indeed.

LIBBY PURVES

Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

An epic cast of... four

Patrick Barlow's Ben Hur is a hilarious romp through Roman times

Ben Hur, at The Watermill, until Saturday, July 28

Need cheering up? Go to The Watermill, where the 'Compagnie of Alexander Berkin' (aka John Hopkins) are performing a zany, gloriously funny version of the old story. While I suspect many of the audience had gone wondering how the famous chariot race was going to be achieved, as soon as John Hopkins stepped on to the stage to introduce his 'stars', it was time to get out the handkerchiefs and wipe away the tears of laughter for it was clear this was going to be a very, very funny production.

John Hopkins (famously seen as Scott, Barnaby's sidekick in Midsomer Murders) appears as a gorgeously over-the-top Judah Ben Hur wearing, for most of the production a short (very short) tunic, revealing mesmerising legs, honed by chasing TV villains.

In the original silent film there were said to be 125,000 actors. Now there were four including, Hopkins/Berkin told us, Ted Fletcher (Andy Williams) who allegedly stepped in at the last minute and hilariously, throughout the first half, spoke sparingly as Mrs Hur.

Since there was a lack of some 124,996 actors, everyone played several parts and Elizabeth Cadwallader is excellent as Sally Wiggins, who plays Hur's sister and also his lover, servant girl Esther (do keep up). Coyly waving, she tells us that she is really a dance student and throughout suddenly breaks into whirling moves, as well as improving a trio's sand dance with just a touch of the Michael Flatleys.

Then there is Marcellus, Hur's boyhood chum who turns against him, convincing him that Eros is out and Mars is in, much to Esther's fury. Nick Haverson playing Gavin Seed playing Marcellus (still with me?) is uproariously funny in all the roles he undertakes which include the occasional appearance as Jesus, buying loaves and fishes. It is he, of course, who with Ben Hur takes part in the chariot race and no, I am not going to tell you how this is achieved.

Adapted by Patrick Barlow from General Lew Wallace's novel and directed by Barlow and Sean Foley, this is epic mixed with bucketloads of panto. In the hands of four terrific actors it comes off superbly well.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

Review from the Guardian.

Three stars
In the style of National Theatre of Brent classics such as The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Messiah, Patrick Barlow and Sean Foley's adaptation of General Lew Wallace's novel, about the clash between the Prince of Judah and Rome, is daft as a brush. Alas, there is no megalomaniac theatre director Desmond Oliver Dingle on hand, but the self-regarding and earnest actor-manager Alexander Berkin (John Hopkins), who believes in "an epic theatre that can bring about real social change", is a good substitute. In this play-within-a-play, everything that can go wrong does.

The conceit of a bumbling theatre company staging a play badly is old hat, of course, but this show is a lark. Though it lacks the visual wit of Barlow's long-running West End hit The 39 Steps, there are bonuses – including audience participation in a Roman orgy with Maximus Sexiest Tiberias, and some good jokes: Jesus loses an arm during the Sermon on the Mount, and there is considerable confusion as to whether he is a "fisher of men" or just a strong-tasting cough lozenge.

How funny you find it depends on your taste for silliness, but this audience went wild for the experimental dance troupe of "nearly nude nubile Nubians" and cheered to the thrills of the chariot-race finale, performed – like most of the show – with a manic ingenuity.

A quick-changing cast do the work of thousands, with Elizabeth Cadwallader, Nick Haverson and Andy Williams's inept thespians acting the galley slaves to Berkin's whip-cracking star turn, the smouldering Ben Hur. This miniature epic may not be the greatest story ever told, but it's lighthearted fun – and as we all know, he or she who laughs, lasts.

LYN GARDNER

There are reviews in the Oxford Times ("hilarious production"), Marlborough People ("a great summer's evening out"), The Good Review ("perfectly calibrated comedy... the energy never flags... joyous comic gem... deserves to follow The 39 Steps and The Play What I Wrote into the West End" - five stars) and WhatsOnStage ("one of the funniest evenings in the theatre this decade... tears of laughter all evening and a whole lot of curtain calls" - five stars).