Ben Hur, O2 Arena, London
Judgement Day, Almeida, London
Separate Tables, Festival Theatre, Chichester

It took ages to get to the chariot race, then Hur got left behind. Elsewhere, two revivals restored faith in drama and humanity

Place your bets. Is Ben Hur Live going be a storming spectacular?

This is the epic Judeo-Roman saga – as immortalised by Hollywood and Charlton Heston – now recreated as a "monutainment experience". It offers the mighty sea battle, plus the score-settling chariot race between the oppressed titular hero and Messala, his buddy-turned-imperial enemy. There are additional gladiatorial dust-ups too (drawing on Lew Wallace's original 1880 novel).

Thursday's world premiere transformed the vast O2 arena into a sand-strewn hippodrome and the show returns, from continental touring, for a second galloping visit in January. But, oh, what a massive drag this extravaganza proves to be: endless trundling without cinematic edits.

To give the design team their due (Mark Fisher, Ray Winkler and Ann Hould-Ward), the Middle Eastern costumes start off looking authentically beautiful, before we shift to a tedious orgiastic Rome – all gold bikinis. Initially, I also enjoyed the giant skeletal galleys, pushed around on rubber wheels rather than rowed. Marauding pirates swing from dune buggies up on to the rigging.

Too soon, though, the vessels become lumbering, having to fold down their masts, like ships that can't pass in the night. And it's an age before we get to the chariots. The steeds in the climactic race are gorgeous pedigree creatures with wind-swept manes, but this'll teach them never to act with humans. While one stuntman did a stunning lap, surfing on his breastplate when his chariot crashed, another was to be seen patently sabotaging his own axle, and a third failed to abort at all on press night – bewilderingly pipping Hur, who is clearly supposed to win, to the post.

The acting and the amplification throughout is dire. As the narrator, Stewart Copeland (formerly of The Police) risibly lopes around in a designer suit amid galumphing centurions. His commentary is preposterously portentous, in the style of a blockbuster trailer, while the protagonists mutter in Latin, drowned out by Copeland's score of blaring trumpets.

Simply rewatching the MGM movie on DVD is more thought-provoking, with its occupying American/Roman army boasting of Western civilised values while jailing suspected trouble-makers without trial.

While Hur is finally converted to peacemaking by Christ, there is no happy ending in Judgment Day, a gripping drama by Odon von Horvath which is, unbelievably, little known in Britain. Newly translated by Christopher Hampton and staged by James Macdonald, this is a darkening portrait of a 1930s Germanic small town and, more particularly, of its station master – a seeming model citizen called Hudetz.

Judgment Day starts out as a satire of parochial lives. Sarah Woodward's frumpy Frau Leimgruber sits on the platform, next to a bovine farmer, battening on any titbits of gossip with growls of pleasure, like a terrier mauling a bone. Meanwhile Joseph Millson's uniformed Hudetz keeps himself to himself. Quietly shy, he pops in and out of his office, switching the signals. He's always lived by the rules until, finding himself alone with the innkeeper's daughter (Laura Donnelly's sprightly Anna), he's suddenly kissed and forgets the signals, with fatal repercussions.

What's fascinating is the moral messiness of the recriminations and exculpations that ensue. Hudetz swears he's blameless. Anna perjures herself in his defence. The liars are exonerated by the biased community, the prosecuting evidence judged pernicious. Yet the menacing fear intensifies that the guilty truth will out, and Hudetz and Anna will be hunted down in the woods, either by a lynch mob or by their own internalised furies.

Designer Miriam Buether's slow-turning set, surrounded by a gloomy palisade, is ingeniously fluid and claustrophobic, and the repressed tenderness of Millson's Hudetz is unnervingly combined with a lethal iciness.

In Separate Tables, originally penned by Terence Rattigan in 1954, a superficially genteel Bournemouth guesthouse turns into a kangaroo court. In Philip Franks' commendable revival, the imperious busybody Mrs Railton-Bell (Stephanie Cole) decrees that one fellow long-term resident, the Major (Iain Glen), must be kicked out.

She has just discovered that the moustachioed, seemingly pukka Glen is a moral degenerate. He's been booked for sexual harassment. She presumes wrongly, however, that all the other guests will agree with her peremptory verdict.

After John Osborne's Look Back in Anger famously revolutionised British theatre in 1956, Rattigan's plays were critically dismissed as old-school, safe fare for stuffy audiences. But what's startling about Franks' production is that it airs the alternative script which Rattigan wanted performed when his play transferred to Broadway in 1956, but which was suppressed.

In the well-known version, the Major is heterosexual. Here, though, Glen is a closet gay (as was Rattigan). Forced to confess that he has been propositioning young men on the esplanade, he dreads the starched bigotry of the Railton-Bell brigade.

The final scene is remarkably moving. Encouraged by his salt-of-the-earth landlady (Deborah Findlay), Glen finds the courage to stay and takes his seat in the agonisingly hushed dining room. Then, one by one, Railton-Bell's commandeered allies break ranks, each exchanging a few words of small talk with the Major. Though it dare not speak its name too loud, this is a rallying cry for tolerance which restores your faith in humanity.

These days, maybe the old version – where the Major has molested women in a cinema – would present more of a moral challenge. But, still, this Chichester Festival staging makes you see Rattigan as a radical in his time.

'Ben Hur Live' (0871 230 7143) today; 'Judgment Day' (020-7359 4404) to 17 Oct; 'Separate Tables' (01243-781312) to 3 Oct

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum