Comedy is a serious business.
It must have taken many hours of tremendously detailed, precise work to create the delicious chaos that fills the Watermill stage (and frequently spills over into the audience) in Ben Hur.
A huge amount has to go right for things to go as wrong as they, apparently, do in this show: togas get tangled, the text gets mangled, props malfunction, wigs fly in all directions and sound effects arrive arrive at precisely the wrong moment.
This is perfectly calibrated comedy. Pregnant pauses, owing to a forgotten line or a missed cue, are timed with precision, generating just the right amount of tension and ensuing relieved laughter.
Expectations were high for this production, co-directed and written by Patrick Barlow, who has made The 39 Steps such a great success in the West End.
For Ben Hur, Barlow has collaborated with Sean Foley, one of the men behind the acclaimed Morecambe & Wise homage The Play What I Wrote.
Andy Williams, who starred in that show, brings Morecambe’s spirit to the Watermill stage as the hapless Ted Fletcher, a last minute recruit to the cast.
Williams’ resemblance to the great comedian is uncanny, and he shares Morecambe’s ability to generate gales of laughter with his physical presence alone. The moment he attempts to sit down while wearing a Roman commander’s breastplate and helmet is worth the entire ticket price.
For much of the show, the default facial expression behind Fletcher’s spectacles is a blend of terror and bemusement. He undergoes numerous changes of Bible-era costume, but never once removes his shoes and socks.
In many other companies, Williams would steal the show, but here he appears alongside three other equally eye-catching and accomplished comic performers.
John Hopkins, as square-jawed company actor-manager Alexander Berkin is relentlessly earnest in the midst of all the silliness, and sports a dangerously abbreviated toga to great comic effect.
Elizabeth Cadwallader shines as the ever eager-to-please Sally Wiggins, who never misses an opportunity to over-emote, or throw in a piece of gratuitous choreography… a pirouette here, a couple of moments of Riverdancing there… or to milk the applause.
Nick Haverson as Gavin Seed provides some delightful moments of physical comedy, not least as a Roman Emperor who manages, repeatedly, to get hopelessly entangled in his chair, eventually enlisting a member of the audience to help him out. Haverson/Seed’s various roles include a fastidiously polite Jesus Christ who pops up at pivotal moments.
This is a hugely demanding production for the cast. Between them, while remaining resolutely in character as Fletcher, Wiggins, Berkin and Seed, they populate the stage with a bewildering array of different characters. None of the quartet is offstage for more than a moment, but the energy never flags.
Congratulations are due to all involved in creating this joyous comic gem, which deserves to follow The 39 Steps and The Play What I Wrote into the West End.
Ben Hur is at the Watermill Theatre in West Berkshire until 28th July 2012 for more information or to book tickets please click here