“You have a very curious and charming house”
After having been surprisingly seduced by Noises Off into properly liking a farce for the first time, my hopes for The Ladykillers were raised. I have to admit to never having seen an Ealing comedy in my life and so didn’t have any clue what I was about to see, other than that it was going some kind of madcap comedic evening. The story has been adapted for the stage by Graham Linehan – he of Father Ted and The IT Crowd – and I am reliably informed that far from being a faithful representation of the original film, it is a brand new take on the plot which follows its own route.
Set in Mrs Wilberforce’s house in King’s Cross, the play takes place over a few days late in 1956 as she lets her spare room to the kindly-seeming Professor Marcus, leader of a string quintet who need the rehearsal space. She is blissfully unaware that he’s actually the head honcho of a gang of criminals who are using the prime location as the base for their next big train heist, but things don’t go quite according to plan to amusing (albeit intermittently for me) effect.
Linehan’s approach has been to create extremes of character, so everything is exaggerated for comedic effect, the quirky characteristics of each of the robbers proving to be essentially definitive, lending things something of a sitcom edge. Ben Miller’s psychotic Romanian was my criminal of choice, raising laughs with every single exasperated glance, and there’s good work too from Stephen Wight as the chemically-dependent and variable Harry, Clive Rowe’s simpleton One-Round and James Fleet’s would-be cross-dressing Major. Sean Foley’s production emphasises these absurdities which consequently edged things a little too close to farce for my comfort, where I thought the darker tone, suggested by the turn of events in the second half, might have been better explored.
Peter Capaldi is strong though as Marcus, slyly manipulative and seductively charming as he insinuates his way into Mrs Wilberforce’s affections, and marshalling his motley crew with skill, whether in determining roles in the heist or in conducting them in an impromptu performance as they are caught out in their deception and have an audience waiting to hear them play (a highly amusing scene). And Marcia Warren as the initially hoodwinked landlord has a grace and strength, alongside a little battiness, that ensures we’re always rooting for her.
The real star of the show though is Michael Taylor’s set though. A topsy-turvy house of crooked perspectives and endless surprises, it revolves and reveals and unfolds and shudders in a multitude of imaginative ways, the car chase is wryly executed and the final conversion is breathtakingly good. But I can’t help but feel that there’s something slightly amiss about being most excited about the staging of a production, the show itself ought to be the star and I am not so sure that this, with its old-school comedy ethos, hits the mark entirely for me. Ultimately, it just wasn’t my kind of comedy and very well received as it was both throughout and at the curtain call, it is certainly hitting many a funny bone.