Paul Johnson | 15 Mar 2020 12:48pm
Photos: Eve Dunlop
The 39 Steps by Patrick Barlow has always been one of my favourite stage comedies, but now there is a brand-new one on the block. I recently travelled to the Barn Theatre in Cirencester, for their production of Ben Hur, once again written by Patrick Barlow, and I was thoroughly captivated.
Although the play is based on the novel by General ‘Lew’ Wallace, playwright Patrick Barlow’s comic staging owes more to the fifteen million dollar epic spectacle of the 1959 William Wyler movie that featured 365 speaking parts and well over 50,000 extras, whereas Barlow’s version had a cast of just four.
Chaos develops as the group of ham actors led by the inept director Daniel Veil; attempt to bring the story to the stage in an ill-advised epic treatment on a low budget, with many beautifully bad puns flying thick and fast.
The cast all play at least eight characters each, with the only extras being a few blow-up dolls (suitably attired) and very clever use of the audience for the sea battle. Daniel Veil, the director of the company performing the play-within-a-play, only has a cast of four, creating a whole host of quick changes and even quicker grabbed props. His camels are step-in animal costumes, his chariots are… Oops, I was warned on pain of death, not to give away any spoilers.
Directed by Joseph O’Malley for ‘Built by Barn’, the play is well-thought-out and the set crafted just right for The Barn’s stage. O’Malley seems to have the knack of finding all the humour from within Barlow’s ingenious script and enhances even more lines to bring out further laughter.
Liam Horrigan, plays the director and leading actor, Daniel Veil who, in turn, plays Judah Ben Hur and one of the wise men Galspar, as well as many other roles and bit parts. Veil really fancies his chances with Crystal, the only female cast member of his theatre group, only to be disappointed later.
James Dinsmore as Edgar T Chesterfield, in turn takes on Balthasar, Lew Wallace, Ben Hur’s Mother Miriam and Roman General Quintus Arrius, along with five or six other characters and small parts.
As the actor Omar Lord, Devarnie Lothian also plays Jesus, as well as Ben Hur’s childhood friend Messala – who turns out to be the baddie rated higher than any James Bond villain. He also plays Melchior, one of the wise-men, and several other characters.
Bronte Tadman is the actress Crystal Singer, the only female in Veil’s theatre company, who is also busy fighting off the affections of afore mentioned Daniel Veil, as well as playing the Virgin Mary, Ben Hur’s sister Tirzah, and the family maid Amrah, along with a nultitude of other parts.
There is absolutely no way that any member of the cast stands out more than others. They are all equally brilliant working fantastically well with each other. Dialogue comes fast and furious, with many hilarious speedy costume and personality changes along the way.
Justin Williams (set designer) has a list of almost a hundred sets behind him for various theatres throughout the country, including many in the West End. Costumes under the eye of Penn O’Gara, also work wonderfully. They all look just right, with many made with quick-change and tear-away adaptions in mind. Full marks. Lighting and effects designed by Sam Rowcliffe-tanner and Justin Farndale do everything they are supposed to, including covering the stage and cast in smoke!
Choreography by Zak Nemorin is exactly right, plus it is pleasing to see a nod to Wilson, Betty and Kepple’s sand dance routine during one scene.
Patrick Barlow’s well-written tells the story brilliantly, bringing out the humour and, most importantly, getting it all able to fit together for a cast of just four. The whole concept is as daft as a box of frogs and cornier than a box of Kellogg’s, but everything works and works very well. Barlow’s clever scripting accidentally on purpose, twists itself into song lyrics and titles, old sayings, classic catchphrases and all sorts of innuendo, while Veil’s Theatre Company falls apart as backstage rivalries overtake those onstage.
Whatever you do, don’t miss this chaotic comedy.