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This slapstick DIY take on the epic novel is undercooked but gets big laughs
It’s irresistible, that compression of scale: from the epic to the intimate; from the multi-million blockbuster to the raid on Poundland; from the cast of thousands to the exhausted miniature ensemble. The Tricycle’s Christmas show is a familiar comic romp through a Biblical Epic That Went Wrong, a rough and ready retelling of ‘Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ’, the absurdly ambitious novel by General ‘Lew’ Wallace that becomes joyfully impaled on its own hubris.
The evening is framed by the attempts of a hapless four-strong theatre company to present ‘Ben Hur’ in all its glory, and their stabs at re-creating chariot races and ocean voyages, pirate attacks and ascensions draw the best and biggest laughs. It’s all been seen before, not least in the same team’s own Olivier Award-winning West End smash ‘The 39 Steps’, where it was far more charming and compelling, but ‘Ben Hur’ is never less than entertaining, and its biggest set-pieces, which see the audience drawn in as galley-slaves and bombarded with life-size cloth pirates, are fun on an appropriately gargantuan scale.
Patrick Barlow’s script leans too heavily on ‘Carry On’-style spoonerisms and comic mispronunciations, funny for ten minutes, tiresome over two hours. But the main issue is that the framing plot, with its thin characterisations and lack of stage time, feels totally un-engaging and undercooked. It’s easy to enjoy the catastrophe unfolding, but it would be so much more engaging if we were actually made to care about the muppets whose ears it’s falling down around.
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