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Ben Hur (Newbury)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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The movie gave employment to 50,000 extras not to mention 78 horses. The Compagnie d'Alexander Berkin consists of just four Protean performers. There's recent Dudley Tech. dance graduate Sally Wiggins, that stalwart actor Gavin Seed and leading the company eponymous actor/manager Alexander Berkin. I mentioned four performers.  Gallant stagehand Ted Fletcher standing in for a sick thespian goes on as an unknown ... and you can guess the rest.

Actually not one but four stars are born here, and that's without mentioning the entire audience and useful 'extra' dummies. Berkin himself is a revelation in the Charlton Heston role of Judah Ben-Hur - literally as he reveals a muscled athletic physique beneath his tunic, though word is that this is down to his lookalike, actor John Hopkins. His epic nobility carries him through ordeals culminating in the graphic horror of serving as a galley slave and dealing with some distinctly dodgy sound cues - and through it all his profile is never less than rugged.

He's wonderfully partnered by the mercurial Seed (who in turn resembles actor Nick Haverson. He turns from villain Messala, spitefully condemning the Hurs to living hell, to their faithful manservant in seconds. To him falls the responsibility of portraying Jesus, giving succour to the body - and soul - of Hur at his lowest ebb as a manacled prisoner and performing a last miracle meeting the Hur family on the road to Calvary. Thanks to his range of expressions and the work of the wig department (Designer Paul Wills) he does the Saviour proud.

Wiggins (who provides the thrilling Polynesian "open your hearts" dance welcome) proves her versatility as three extraordinarily different young women, Hur's gentle sister Tirzah, his first love, downtrodden but proud slavegirl Esther, and exotic seductress Iras. Again, hats off (so to speak) to the wig department as she transforms with a toss of a hairpiece, the addition of a drape. Four women, I should say thanks to alter ego Elizabeth Cadwallader

What can I say about Ted Fletcher? Tongue-tied to start with, but thanks to his supportive fellow actors there for him with his lines too, he soon gains confidence and rises to the occasion in roles ranging from Hur's mother to his adoptive father, consul Quintus Arrius. After this triumph, he won't return backstage, leaving that job perhaps to his lookalike Andy Williams.

It just remains to credit writer/directors Sean Foley and Patrick Barlow (the latter living his childhood dream to bring Ben Hur to the stage), with one of the funniest evenings in the theatre this decade. The auditorium filled with delighted laughter from the moment the great red house curtains divided to reveal the first of a succession of ingeniously shaky cardboard, yet 3D, sets. Arriving at the climactic chariot race via a wonderfully authentic sand dance, the fabulous foursome ensured tears of laughter all evening and a whole lot of curtain calls

- by Judi Herman


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