Playwright Patrick Barlow had a big, surprise hit with his stage version of “The 39 Steps,” racking up nine years in the West End and two more on Broadway, gleefully sending up its source material by shrinking it down. If his spoofish take on “Ben Hur” struggles to recreate the formula, it’s because that’s all it tries to do. Rather than specifically interrogate the 1959 cinematic epic “Ben-Hur,” a vehicle for the ripped Charlton Heston, Barlow relies on the sort of go-to gags you find in any theatrical take-down.
The conceit is that we’re watching an amateurish, low-budget production, written, directed and led by the vain Daniel Vale (John Hopkins). He plays the eponymous slave-turned-popular-hero in a tunic that barely reaches his thighs, tensing his torso at all times and dropping his voice to a macho bass.
Its comedy comes from squishing the epic story down for the stage. William Wyler’s film deployed armies of extras across vast desert vistas and ancient amphitheaters. Vale has a cast of four and a whole load of quick changes. His camels are stuffed toys, his galley slaves are foam mannequins and his chariots are powered by lawnmowers.
Directed by Tim Carroll, it’s all daft as doughnuts and brazenly corny. Barlow’s cod-biblical dialogue accidentally twists itself into song lyrics, classic catchphrases and all sorts of innuendo. Sound effects are stilted and strange — planes rip through Roman crowds. Gradually, Vale’s company falls apart as backstage rivalries overtake those onstage.
There’s a fundamental problem here, though: The show ends up pulling in two different directions at the same time. The comedy of amateur dramatics hinges on inept artists trying to make the best show they possibly can, while the comedy of spoof involves skilled artists making something knowingly dreadful. The first drags its material down, the second sends it up. Blurring the two scuppers them both.
It means the amateur-dramatics framework doesn’t ring true. Truly proud players would never sully their scene with a gag about cock/tails, for instance. At the same time, relying on infighting and infidelities to bolster the humor dilutes the mockery of Wyler’s film.
It’s quite clear that a lot of money has been spent trying to make Michael Taylor’s design look cheap. Every scene gets its own special prop, be it the see-sawing raft or the miniature mountain with its sermonizing Jesus. Back in 2002, “War Horse” director Tom Morris staged it using tea towels for tunics and wooden chairs for chariots. Barlow’s spoof, by contrast, ties too hard to fail.