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

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?