5th February, 2013 (also seen on 3rd November, 2012 at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham)
Graham Lineham’s stage adaptation of the 1955 Ealing comedy classic is now on tour after a successful West End run at the Gielgud. It tales the plan of five criminals who rent a room in Mrs. Wilberforce’s King’s Cross house to carry out a cash robbery, although their disguise as avant-garde musicians soon falls apart with farcical consequences. Although the story is simple, it is remarkably theatrical, clever and most of all thoroughly entertaining.
The characters are admittedly cartoons, so if you’re expecting Chekhov then you might be disappointed; however this play – just like the film –is billed as an entertainment. Paul Brown’s Professor Marcus excels as the so-called mastermind who tries to keep his clang of criminals and ultimately flawed plan together, as does William Troughton as the young, pill-popping Harry Robinson and Chris McCalphy as the slow One-Round who takes a shine to Mrs. Wilberforce. Clive Mantle, Cliff Parisi (Sean Williamson last year) and Marcus Taylor also impress at creating realistic caricatures – if such a thing can exist. Michele Dotrice is extremely watchable and does a terrific job at aging up without overplaying the role – I particularly enjoyed the line ‘we’re old, we’re up at 4.30’.
And it wasn’t until I read the programme that I realised what a clever play about England this is. It’s quite easy to recognise that it’s set in a time of great change in post-WWII London, but interpreting the characters as a representation of ‘new’ England invading Mrs. Wilberforce and her rickety, subsided house (representing an archetypal view of England) is quite genius.
Lineham’s script is brilliant: he includes moments of observational, surreal and slapstick humour as well as ably adapting the plot. Admittedly, I feel that it doesn’t quite reach the comic heights of Noises Off and it is perhaps an unconventional farce as these are not just any ordinary people in an extraordinary situation however it is more than satisfying and does conform to characteristics of farce in the sense that none of them want to be there (certainly in act two). Moreover, by giving the play a happy denouement, you feel all is well again and that the crumbling image of England has survived. Sean Foley ensures that the slapstick sequences are swift and actually funny and he has allowed for several fitting coups-de-théâtre, including a shaking house, impressive robbery re-enactment and several moustached old ladies!
As you walk into the theatre, the façade of the house sets you up for the story’s setting and the projection of The Ladykillers logo is fitting as it perhaps makes the play self-aware which is apt for an entertainment as well as it alluding back to its history in cinema. Michael Taylor’s design is probably the most absorbing and detailed of a play at the moment and Scott Penrose’s special effects are easily applaud-inducing when chairs and tables move and picture frames fall off walls (at least they certainly were on a Saturday matinee like when I saw it last year but not on a Tuesday evening interestingly). Special mention also goes to Ben and Max Ringham’s sinister music and sound design, which is instantly likeable as it becomes a motif to move the story along.
I do not hesitate to recommend this show as I’ve seen it with two other people of different generations and think it is one of the funniest and most visually impressive pieces of theatre in the UK at the moment. A return to the West End has been rumoured and a most welcome one it would be.
The Ladykillers is currently touring the UK.