Battersea Arts Centre has been a haven in this benighted part of London for several years, but at first glance, it seemed that it had gone too far this time. Most people's recollection of Ben-Hur is focused on that chariot race (from the 1959, Charlton Heston-led film, which is usually watched in protest on a Bank Holiday afternoon for want of anything better) so BAC had to deal with people's memories of a Hollywood extravaganza.
Adapters Tom Morris and Carl Heap (who also directs) do a brilliant job of making Lew Wallace's epic watchable. Amazingly, this book has been staged before - in 1899, making this the first effort for more than a 100 years - though I doubt it could have been done better than here.
This new version focuses on a group of Victorian servants left alone in the big house. As their masters troop off to see that original version of Ben-Hur performed, the servants decide to act out the story of injustice, revenge and tragedy for themselves. All sorts of unlikely props are called into play: cricket pads serve as shinguards, a watering can is a trumpet and white gloves become a dove.
Similarly multi-functional, the ensemble of ten actors take on a multitude of parts - human and equine (as well as a row of statues) - and perform with the aplomb of children left alone with their parents' clothes and the household accoutrements. What this play represents is all our fantasies made real. Surely, secretly, we long for the days when a broomstick was a horse and coal scuttle a helmet and Christmas the time for such frolicsome games.
My only quibble is that the actors start hesitantly, as servants playing parts rightly would. But while the conceit that they're only servants is quickly dispensed with, it might have led to a greater sense of wonderment if the actors were still learning as they went on. (There's also a bit of an anti-climax after the chariot race, but that's not the fault of the production, that's the fault of Wallace's original text).
All of the (mainly) young cast work incredibly hard. It would be unfair to pick out any particular individuals - this is ensemble playing at its best.
Sadly, the place was only a third full, which is a real disadvantage as audience participation plays a vital, improvisational part in Ben-Hur. This show deserves better support. It may have only a fraction of the budget of West End shows, but it lacks nothing in enthusiasm, invention and sheer enjoyment. I enjoyed it immensely; it's even worth braving south London for.