Ben Hur- opening night review by John Rigby

full of humour and energy

John Rigby

On hearing of the Saddleworth Players’ plan to put on Ben Hur at the Millgate, I must admit that my first reaction was one of bewilderment, especially as it was going to be played as a comedy. What on earth would it be like? Carry On Crashing, perhaps, or a cross between Hollywood epic and Last of the Summer Wine, with chariots lurching out of control down Stoneswood Road to snarl up the traffic on Delph High Street?

Another surprise: the cast of thousands were to be replaced by four actors. Really? The whole enterprise had ‘gamble’ written all over it. And the audience were to be split into brutal oppressors and hapless galley-slaves. As I heard someone say during the interval, “If they hadn’t done it well it would have been dire.”

Luckily they did do it well. All four actors hurled themselves into the action, delivering the gloriously leaden dialogue with aplomb and hurtling unhesitatingly between endless unlikely rôles.

Can there be an actor anywhere in England who looks less like a dashing Roman charioteer than Mark Rosenthal? Mark made the most of the incongruity by interpreting Ben Hur as an indecisive middle-aged dope who somehow becomes a legendary champion of the arena.

Jon Comyn-Platt’s speciality tonight was ineptness – dithering as Ben Hur’s mother Sarah, disastrous as an admiral of the fleet and clueless as a Roman senator.

Andy Hoyle effortlessly switched between a treacherous power-hungry Roman governor, a brainless cocktail mixer and Jesus – portrayed for some reason as a village simpleton.

Kate Davies played nearly all the female parts, being driven sometimes to giving herself orders off-stage and resentfully following them. As the Virgin Mary, a gormless love-struck teenager, an enraged cast-off slave and an exotic Egyptian dancer she too was constantly inventive, with perfect timing.

Verity Mann’s production was as usual full of humour and energy; the apparent spontaneity of action and reaction comes of course from meticulous planning and rehearsal. And the costume and props department excelled themselves with extravagant robes, unlikely hats, odds-and -ends of Roman armour and even an American civil war uniform. Also collapsible camels, rubber mannikins and children’s scooters. (Don’t ask why – you’ll have to go and watch it this week.)

The audience had a good time; quiet at first, they threw themselves enthusiastically into the snarling threats and whimpering pleas, and after the interval drinks the second half went swimmingly.   

The play itself (written by Patrick Barlow) follows the outline of the 1959 film surprisingly closely, though its aim is always to undermine its heroic pretensions. Mostly it succeeds, though the parody and verbal by-play can sometimes become predictable. And for anyone who fancies a good read Lew Wallace’s original 1880 novel is a mere 928 pages long. Why not have a go at it this Christmas?

Review of opening night 19th November by John Rigby.

Ben Hur by Patrick Barlow runs 19th-16th November at Millgate Arts Centre Delph

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