The Ladykillers

Review of Graham Linehan's stage adaptation

The 1955 film version of The Ladykillers was an atmospheric, jet-black comedy, largely seen as a parable in which the right and proper morals of the Establishment triumphed over post-war opportunists.

That’s all very well, but is it as funny as the slapstick of a man being repeatedly twatted in the face by a revolving chalkboard?

Father Ted creator Graham Linehan clearly thinks not, and in translating the Ealing comedy classic for the West End stage, has put a Marx Brothers twist on the sinister post-heist shenanigans, enriching the drama with visual and physical gags. One moment in particular, in which a canteen of stolen cutlery clatters from a crook’s coat, is pure Harpo.

While Linehan has taken liberties with the feel and the plot of the original (though not quite as many as the stage version of the similarly reimagined stage version of The 39 Steps does), the characters remain broadly the same. Mrs Wilberforce is an kindly, slightly dotty old widow who rents out a room in her ramshackle house to the sinister ‘Professor’ Marcus, who uses it as a base to plan a security van robbery at neighbouring King’s Cross station, with his eclectic band of thieves posing as a classical quartet using his digs as rehearsal space.

For the conniving, unprincipled weasel of a criminal mastermind, who better than Peter Capaldi, not nearly so vicious as Malcolm Tucker, but certainly as slippery. Of his gang, the stand-outs are probably Ben Miller, who shines as the comedy foreigner, a cut-throat Romanian prone to malapropisms but with an irrational phobia of little old ladies, and Clive Rowe as the dim-witted ‘One-Round’, utterly baffled by the idea of alias. Imagine Father Dougal as a large, middle-aged, black man, and you have the idea.

The crew is completed by Stephen Wight as the pill-popping wideboy, and James Fleet as the retired general with a penchant for cross-dressing. Meanwhile, Marcia Warren seems born to play the benignly bewildered Mrs Wilberforce, doting on the houseguests that have broken her loneliness, even though they would so obviously rather be left alone.

But one of the biggest stars is the delightfully higgledy-piggledy set, designed by Michael Taylor to resemble a gothic version of a fairground house of fun, rattling as the London-Newcastle goods train thunders by. And the inventive way the heist itself is played out in the confines of a single-set theatre is a triumph of ingenuity that earns a well-deserved ovation of its own.

The comic pedigree of the writer and cast is matched by director Sean Foley, who famously brought the Morecambe and Wise piece The Pay What I Wrote to the West End. In his capable hands, much of the show is played as pure farce, as the villains try not to break their cover – difficult when Mrs Wilberforce has invited a gaggle of similar little old ladies around to hear them play. And when the rozzers come around, the gang pile into a tiny cupboard, for a great sight gag. On being discovered, all the explaining they need to do for their bizarre, suspicious behaviour is covered with the definitive: ‘Mrs Wilberforce, we are artists.’

That’s pretty much the extent of the satire. Though still set at the time of the Suez crisis, there’s some mention of modern affairs as Marcus argues: ‘Who is the real criminal? The man who robs a bank or the man who founds one’ but it’s delivered with such a big knowing wink so as not to dampen the exuberant knockabout fun.

That is the ethos of the night, which, although has a couple of minor ebbs, is jam-packed with comic business (some unplanned, thanks to an errant doorknob which allowed the cast to ad-lib splendidly).

It most definitely is not a faithful rendition of the much-loved film, but an enjoyable slice of hokum in its own right, in which the cast – and audience – have a ball.

  • Review by Steve Bennett. The Ladykillers is booking at the Gielgud Theatre until April. Click here for tickets.

Published: 8 Dec 2011

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