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Ben Hur

by on 30 January 2022

Blockbuster Busted

Ben Hur

 by Patrick Barlow

Richmond Shakespeare Society at the Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham until 29th January

Review by Vince Francis

We were invited to the lovely Mary Wallace Theatre on Friday evening to have a look at the Richmond Shakespeare Society production of Ben Hur, which was presented under the guise of the David Veil Theatre Collective as the producers.  Intriguing, given that Ben Hur, in my memory, was an epic 1950s movie which held records for budget and cast, while the Mary Wallace is a somewhat more modest venue, “hosting” this company of four.  The film itself was based on the 1880 novel by Lewis Wallace, an American Army General. 

This is a production in the tradition of chaos comedy, which draws on influences of farce, slapstick, and commedia dell arte, whilst never becoming entrenched in any one of them.  Think The 39 Steps, Dick Barton and elements of the Go Wrong series as comparators.  Everything about it is presented with comedy in mind and the cast are comfortable and adept at handling the occasional ‘blip’ or slip that goes with such fast-paced, gag-laden material.  As with all such scripts, not all the gags and references hit home with all the audience, although the older members with more history to draw, on fare rather better in this respect, but the sheer volume and variety ensures that no-one feels left out. 

Interestingly, the script sticks fairly closely to the original novel, upon which the movie was based, even with the adjustments made to prevent the cast going entirely mad.  Each actor takes on multiple characters, sometimes dashing off stage for a swift costume change and switching between in situ.  The guiding principle seems to be “Tell the story, of course, but if there’s a gag to be had, sling it in there and see what happens”. 

Some of the gags are physical and Omar Lord provides a shining example in Act I; and some are choreographic, such as the affectionate homage to Wilson, Keppel and Betty, and the pretty nifty tango Act II.

The gags extend to the tongue-in-cheek programme, which is informative, but which provides another layer, or “veil” to be drawn back.

The four players in the cast are listed as “Edgar T. Chesterfield”, “Crystal Singer” (a reference to Little Shop of Horrors there, perhaps?), “Omar Lord” and yes, “David Veil” himself.  These are noms de guerre, of course and the witty and informative programme reveals actual identities in the list of understudies as Simon Bickerstaffe, Lily Tomlinson, Tom Nunan, and Hugh Cox, respectively.

This is a top-drawer, high-energy team, with bags of talent, a thorough understanding of comedy and absolute trust in each other.  In my book, those are the essential elements for a production like this.  It would be both impossible and churlish to attempt to single out any one cast member, but the script provides ample opportunities for each to shine and when they do, it’s a blinder. 

Louise Stenson’s direction of this Patrick Barlow script is a veritable tour-de-force of the art of being funny on stage, delivered at break-neck speed.  There is a little bit of a sag in ACT II, which I think could possibly signify that the script might benefit from a gentle tweak, but it didn’t mar the overall effect.

All the technical elements were achieved with a suitably minimalist approach, giving the impression that this is a production that could be packed into the back of a van at the end of a run, ready for the next location.  Scenery consisted of a painted backdrop flanked upstage by two trucks holding flats which could be quickly revolved to provide interior or exterior settings.   Oh, and a porthole, handheld from the wing.  Don’t ask, but it worked.  Straightforward, unfussy, and entirely suitable for maintaining the pace of the piece.  Similarly, props, often seemingly straight out of the basket, but just enough to support the gag.  Lighting again was uncomplicated, making use of appropriate colour washes and included in the gags by means of occasional miscueing – scripted, of course!  Sound was clear and sound effects well placed and audible.  Lastly, but by no means least, the costumes.  Using a sort of shift as a base (I’m not a costumier, as you can probably tell), other drapes or wraps could be quickly added or removed to create character.  Well thought out and effective in the execution.

It has often been said that comedy is the hardest form of theatre to perform and best left to the professionals.  If that is true, then this production was truly at professional standard.  I’m only sorry I didn’t get to see it earlier in the week so that I could come back again.

Vince Francis, January 2022

Photography  by Pete Messum

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