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Ben Hur

Published Friday 6 July 2012 at 10:22 by Julie Watterston

Epic to microscopic. A cast of 125,000 reduced to a cast of four. The big screen to the tiny stage.

Andy Williams and John Hopkins in Ben Hur at the Watermill, Bagnor

Andy Williams and John Hopkins in Ben Hur at the Watermill, Bagnor Photo: Philip Tull

If you are going to downsize, then what better place than the Watermill. Back in 1959, MGM may have been the masters at creating great and legendary historical dramas, but here in 2012 the Watermill is the master of executing small scale productions with a big impact.

If you are going to reduce a cast of thousands to a handful of actors then a play within a play is naturally the way to go. Precocious actor manager Alexander Berkin (played with great self-assurance by John Hopkins) is exasperated with his ill-prepared cast but is determined to maintain professionalism in the face of adversity. Most things that could go wrong do go wrong and it is the ridiculous absurdity of the situation and how the actors struggle to cope with staging their play that turns this into an evening of inane fun at which it’s very hard not to laugh.

All the memorable features of the Hollywood epic are maintained amongst the frivolity. Hopkins’ smouldering Judah Ben Hur with rippling muscles and melodramatic poise is an absolute delight, Elizabeth Cadwallader is mysterious and seductive as Iris, Nick Haverson is divinely serene as Christ and Andy Williams brings back memories of epic movies being satirised by the likes of Morecambe and Wise as an added bonus.

The Watermill has succeeded in the past in transferring its best productions to the West End and Broadway but one cannot help but think that this one would sit very well at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Production information

Watermill, Newbury, June 22-July 28

Patrick Barlow, Sean Foley (original novel by General Lew Wallace)
Sean Foley, Patrick Barlow
Watermill Theatre, in association with Fiery Angel
John Hopkins, Elizabeth Cadwallader, Nick Haverson, Andy Williams
Running time:
2hrs 5mins

Production information displayed was believed correct at time of review. Information may change over the run of the show.

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Run sheet

King's Head, Islington London
January 24-February 15 2014