The genius of The Thirty-Nine Steps (the play) was that it took a sweeping story and managed to turn it into a rip-roaring comedy, all performed on a nearly empty set by a cast of four playing a cast of about fifty. I loved this show and would constantly take visitors to see it with me during its long West End run; the jokes held up well and the mugging of the cast never failed to crack me up. It was also, I believed, an excellent example of “less is more” theater, the kind of stuff that assumes the audience has imagination and is willing – nay, eager – to be taken on a trip to fantasyland. So when I heard the same creative team was taking on Ben Hur, and that it was going to be getting a run at the Tricyle (which is just a bit smaller than the Criterion), I was pretty darned excited – so excited I got a ticket for first preview, because some good things can’t wait.
Again, we’ve got a big story – bigger, even, than The Thirty-Nine Steps (it does include a sea battle and a chariot race) – and very, very few actors. We were given a clue as to how the night would progress at the beginning, when the “writer” (John Hopkins – also Ben Hur) came out to introduce his show … and his costar (the stunningly multi-roled Alix Dunmore). Here, clearly, was a person (the writer) with many, many problems, and the victim(/love interest) of some of his problems – and we, the audience, were going to watch his ego and their relationship play out on stage. This bit of farce was an extra dimension to the evening’s affairs – and what fun!
A lot of the joy in watching this show is not just in the silly jokes and bad puns but in the visual humor, and to that extent it seems like a lot of the fun would be taken away from you if I said how they took care of things like the sea battles and the chariot races. I think, though, I’m safe in saying that AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION DOES OCCUR and it really heightens the moment. I made my theatrical debut that night … lines and everything!
Just when you think the jokes have been played out, the second act manages to raise things to a whole new level and the laughing starting coming out thick and heavy. Earlier, though, I felt things were a bit layered on and didn’t feel natural – but I’m willing to ascribe this to having seen it in the very early days. These people know what they’re doing and could wring laughter out of a cabinet member from the Kremlin. I’m more than willing to believe things have tightened up and will continue to become shinier throughout the run.
That said, I believe this show just isn’t going to be up there with The Thirty-Nine Steps, and I blame the source material. A book that was ultimately written as a kind of a sideline to telling the story of Jesus for me has a bit of the humor wrung out of it at the start, and while we can have a laugh here and there at the religious schtick shoved in (as much to sell the original, I believe, as anything else), I found these elements just not nearly as comic as they needed to be to bring me along. In fact, the whole thing would have been a lot better if the Jesus bits were cut out as the comedy failed during these moments. Still, the actors were very good, and it will be tighter, and, in days like these, don’t we all need a good laugh, not to mention lawn-mower powered chariots?
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Thursday, November 19th, 2015. It continues through January 9th and is really a great alternative to panto.)