A four-handed Ben Hur and Jim Broadbent in Scrooge: it’s a busy Christmas for Patrick Barlow

Jim Broadbent, Adeel Akhtar and Keir Charles in rehearsals for A Christmas Carol. Picture: Marc Bren

Jim Broadbent, Adeel Akhtar and Keir Charles in rehearsals for A Christmas Carol. Picture: Marc Brenner - Credit: Archant

The National Theatre of Brent founder tells Bridget Galton why he likes to stage ‘enormous, impossible’ epics with just a few actors.

When you’ve mounted The Charge of the Light Brigade with two actors - and staged a pared down version of the The Ring Cycle - Ben Hur’s chariot race should be a breeze.

This Christmas the Tricycle’s tiny stage will, or perhaps won’t, echo to the thunder of the Circus Maximus in Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the sword and sandals epic.

Staged with four actors, Barlow hopes to do for Ben Hur what he did for John Buchan’s 39 Steps nine years ago at the same venue.

“As a small boy I loved the film, it completely held me in its grip; the chariots and Romans, big arena. Plus Jesus was in it, I was obsessed by Jesus at the time.”

Barlow had long fostered a pipe dream to re-make the film so when he was asked to think of something “enormous and impossible” Ben Hur came to mind.

Sadly rights to the movie version weren’t available so he went back to the 1880 original written by civil war general Lew Wallace.

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“It’s a fantastic story of revenge and redemption, love affairs and chariot races. The book is very similar to the film but I’ve added some silliness as well. The actor playing Jesus got a bit panicked. I said: ‘just play him straight it will work’. In my version Jesus is a nice person who preaches common sense.”

Barlow promises a sea battle, a chariot race, a sand dance and a “tasteful” Roman orgy “it is a family show!”

But he won’t say how it’s achieved except that “there’s no budget for puppets”.

“We’ve got good costumes a lot of choreography. There are chariots, I can’t say more, but this company have found bits of cheap set from other productions. It’s slightly obvious that it’s Aladdin for Jerusalem or the bison in the background of a desert scene are from a cowboy story.”

Barlow has lengthy past form on making a virtue of limited resources by staging hilarious versions of epics with a box of costumes and a pair of versatile actors.

Back in 1980 he formed the National Theatre of Brent which started at the Old Red Lion in Islington.

“Developing two handers into epics was borne out of extreme financial hardship – we got £11 for that first week’s work which we split. It was also to do with being a great admirer of the old comedians and a vein of comedy of being up against it and having to do something impossible.

“People say Ben Hur, how? What? The idea of it makes you laugh. The more difficult the more laughs.”

He adds: “There’s something about theatre that’s so ridiculous. People having to dress up and pretend they are other people, run off stage put something on and come back hoping people will believe them. It never ceases to amuse me.

“I find the artifice of theatre a fantastically ridiculous but marvellous thing. I love making it obvious, exposing it.”

Barlow’s longtime comedy partner was Jim Broadbent. Before becaming a noted screen star the Belsize Park actor played downtrodden sidekick Wallace to Barlow’s bombastic Desmond Oliver Dingle in National Theatre of Brent productions including restaging the French Revolution or the Last Supper – with Broadbent playing all the apostles to Barlow’s Jesus.

The pair are collaborating again on Barlow’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol with four actors and Broadbent as Scrooge.

“He is physically brilliant on stage and can be silly but there’s a truly great tragic clown inside him. It’s such a pleasure working with him. Scrooge is such a self pitying pain and self pity always makes me laugh. We have a shorthand now, he will come up and say ‘how about if I do that’. I say: ‘Yeah that’s good do that.”

“Of course as it’s in the West End it’s much more lavish than the NT of Brent – we’ve a budget for flying and puppets.”

Barlow adds that for all its humour, he’s not interested in theatre that’s only for laughs.

“Comedy is the language and in A Christmas Carol there’s lots of hilarity, but it gets quite haunting. It’s about how people deny their pasts and hide their real natures. 39 Steps while being madcap was about a man who is looking for love and can’t find it until he finally gets chained to a woman.

“All my work is ridiculous but you have to be touched as well.

“I want to go a bit deeper. Turn people on a sixpence from one emotion to another, from belly laughs to having a tear in your eye.”

Ben Hur is at The Tricycle until January 9. A Christmas Carol is at the Noel Coward Theatre from November 30 until January 30