Stoke Rep Players
"This theatre group is certainly one to watch out for."
Ben Hur. Ben Hur? Really? Who the devil would think of adapting Ben Hur for the stage? Well, actor-playwright Patrick Barlow, well-known for his adaptation of Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’, has certainly pulled out every stop imaginable to create a totally hilarious and epic ‘goes wrong’ script and, in return, the Stoke Rep Players have embraced the play with gusto, high energy and extreme silliness akin to the Monty Python team and not far from sublime ridiculousness.
Based on the original Ben Hur novel written by General Lew Wallace, which incidentally has been made into five movies including an animated version, it is a play about a play. Under the strong direction of Laura Harvey, a group of six amateur actors undertake each and every role with countless fast-paced costume, wig and prop changes, ducking and diving into character within seconds, sometimes not having enough time (intentional!) but getting on with it regardless, all in an over-dramatic fashion.
A cinema back screen provides some projected images, motion footage, and ambient lighting, and oddly sized set pieces are pushed, pulled and wheeled on and off by the actors. The early ‘Three Kings’ scene was just about as funny as it gets, with the star of Bethlehem stuck to a ladder and the Kings, mounted on camels, galloping through the night. And the chariot race at the end of Act 2 was just genius (I admit I was wondering how they’d play it)...and the more ‘pathetic’ and needy it gets the funnier and more ridiculous it gets.
The cast play a plethora of roles. Lee Birkin as Judah Ben Hur (and others), Tom Pear as Messala (and others) and James Lawton as General Lew (et al it seems) are all equally an absolute delight to watch with their quick-change accents, delivery of sharp one-liners and cheeky innuendoes. The craft and passion they put into their parts is as energetic as it is brilliant. Same as the girls - Sophie Wood, Sarah Mould and Marie Robinson-Wood portray the girls, oh and sometimes boys (Sarah also plays a galley and Roman captain) masterfully against the boys. And, oh boy, can these girls dance. Not sure who is responsible for the design of the dances but the imagination and work that has gone into the choreography is quite excellent. Hardly a repeated move, strong, cartoonic (if there is such a word) and abundant with characterisation and happiness. The dancing was indeed a highlight for me, but with so many highlights its difficult to mention them all without spoiling the plot.
A good soundscape and effects. Lots of nicely placed silly sfx which worked well with off-timing and overly dramatic 'gasp' moments. A nice, assertive lighting design complimented everything at the right time and in the right place.
Lovers of Carry On, trad. panto, Monty Python and other such nonsense will ‘get’ this. The show is daft but as clever as it gets, and everything snaps to grid as far as things going wrong is right. Get a ticket if you can - this theatre group is certainly one to watch out for.
Runs to 20 Oct
Suitable for everyone
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