Note-Perfect Ladykillers

The innocent Mrs Wilberforce (Marcia Warren) has her home turned into a den of thieves in The Ladykillers

Title:                The Ladykillers

Author:              Graham Linehan

Director:            Sean Foley

Theatre:             The Gielgud, Shaftesbury Avenue

Major players:     Peter Capaldi, Marcia Warren, Ben Miller

Out of five?        5

Adapting a much-loved classic needs the skill of a tightrope walker: the new version needs to balance enough familiarity from the original to please the fans with equal amounts of invention to grab the new audience and give the production a life of its own.  Judging from his adaptation of The Ladykillers, writer Graham Linehan must have been taking circus lessons for years!

The plot from the original Ealing comedy remains more or less intact.  Posing as amateur musicians, ‘Professor’ Marcus (Peter Capaldi) and his gang of crooks rent a room from sweet little old Mrs Wilberforce (Marcia Warren).  While pretending to rehearse, they are planning a robbery which goes according to plan – until Mrs W rumbles them.  Somehow they need to dispose of her and escape with the loot ……..

Linehan, together with director Sean Foley (the brains behind the Morecambe and Wise-inspired The Play What I Wrote) have produced a glorious, affectionate re-working of this quintessential English black comedy.  Great one liners are mixed with running gags and energetic physical comedy, all of which are delivered at a pace that makes the laughter almost continuous, leaving just enough time to draw breath in between.  There’s farce, there’s camp comedy and, most importantly, there’s a perfect blend of the light and dark humour that lies at the heart of the play.

Michael Taylor’s stunning, revolving set is the show’s non-speaking character.  Reminiscent of Stephen Daldry’s award-winning An Inspector Calls, it conjures up the outside of Mrs Wilberforce’s house, its interior, its roof, as well as a nearby railway tunnel but, best of all, it plays a pivotal role in the brilliantly inventive execution of the van robbery.  I won’t describe it in detail in case you decide to see it, but I will say it involves model cars …..

There is one other character I should mention – General Gordon, Mrs W’s beloved parrot.  We never actually see him: he suffers from a skin disease that means he can’t tolerate daylight, so his cage is permanently covered.  But we’re in no doubt that his appearance is monstrous and his comments on the action are suitably apt and slightly fruity.  All of which creates an image of a reincarnation of Father Jack, from Linehan’s timeless Father Ted.

The cast play their roles up to the hilt, from Peter Capaldi’s slimy and sinister ‘Professor’ Marcus and Marcia Warren’s Mrs Wilberforce, the epitome of a twittering old dear, to James Fleet’s con-man with a taste for ladies’ dresses and Ben Miller’s paranoid Eastern European gangster.  Stephen Wight’s pill-popping teddy boy takes the brunt of most of the physical comedy, thanks to frequent run-ins with a revolving blackboard, and Mrs Wilberforce’s friends, who pay a visit at the end of the first half, are in a league of their own:  half of them are men in drag (not that Mrs W would have noticed!) and they bring with them a note of hilarious camp comedy.

When this production was first announced, some voices questioned the wisdom of turning classic movies into stage plays.  I can only hope they’ve eaten and digested their words by now.  This may not be pure Ealing, but it is a superbly funny comedy packed with invention that deserves to take up a more permanent residence in the West End.

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