(Andrew Dickson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/16.)
In September, Patrick Barlow’s zany, DIY adaptation of The 39 Steps left the West End for a national tour after nine years of sterling comedic service – having got through 3,000 pairs of stockings, 38 pairs of handcuffs and 530 OS maps of Scotland.
Having so superlatively skewered the Hitchcockian spy thriller, Barlow is back in time for Christmas with a bigger target in his sights: General “Lew” Wallace’s Roman-cum-biblical epic, famously turned into a lumbering MGM vehicle featuring a muscle-rippling Charlton Heston and enough extras to populate a small country.
First staged in 2012 in Newbury, though now slightly tweaked, the play’s setup is familiar. A multitasking cast of four, led by strutting, cliff-jawed actor-manager Daniel Vale (John Hopkins), do the work of thousands, as Judah Ben Hur is betrayed by a Roman soldier, Messala (a pouting Ben Jones), then sold into galley slavery. To help them on their way (“help” is probably not the word) they have a rack of moth-eaten costumes and more quick changes and tomfoolery than an entire run of Monty Python. Sight gags, prop gags, backstage rivalry gags, collapsing scenery gags: no meta-theatrical joke is safe. How do they do the chariot race at the pocket-size Tricycle? Well, that would be telling.