Saturday 3rd December (matinée) 2011 – preview
According to its original writer, William Rose, the plot of ‘The Ladykillers’ came to him in a dream. Which makes us wonder what sort of cheese he eats. Whatever his methods, he must have been doing something right because he was nominated for seven academy awards, and ‘The Ladykillers’ has stood the test of time as a popular Ealing comedy. Surprisingly this is the first attempt at a stage adaptation, with Graham Linehan drafted to bring the comedy up to date (or as he puts it, make it funnier), Sean Foley directing, and a line-up of well-known comedic actors. For Father Ted fans this is a must-see.
Set in post-war London, this is the story of Mrs Wilberforce, an elderly lady (literally) rattling around in a lopsided house almost on top of Kings Cross station. Notorious with the police for her fanciful stories of imaginary crimes, she lets out her spare room to self-styled master criminal ‘Professor’ Marcus (Peter Capaldi), falling for his story that he is going to be rehearsing his amateur string quintet for a concert. Hot on the heels of Professor Marcus, we meet his gang, who are in fact planning a stick-up job: the ‘Major’ a master con-man, ex boxer ‘One-round’, drug-fueled ‘Harry’ and Romanian enforcer ‘Louis’. After the heist, Mrs Wilberforce accidentally discovers the money, and the mayhem begins…
The creative team have skillfully managed to evoke the atmosphere of an old-style theatre, keeping the spirit of the original, whilst making it slightly more surreal; the set is full of period detail, and brilliantly constructed to suggest the subsidence that Mrs Wilberforce refers to, as well as the regular disturbance from trains; nothing is as it seems. It’s a tribute to the imagination that has gone into creating it, that the set itself received applause at several points in the show, most notably following the ingenious ‘car chase’.
As we have often bemoaned, it’s not often that you see such a strong ensemble cast in the West End. Peter Capaldi resists the temptation to go over the top with a subtle performance as professor Marcus; he may be the cleverest man in the room, but only because he has picked a team of the dumbest oddballs in the criminal underworld. Slimey and arrogant by turns, his comeuppance is particularly entertaining. Perhaps most of the best lines go to Clive Rowe as ‘One-round’, whose inability to understand subterfuge is illustrated by a series of comic gems, such as shouting ‘Is anyone back from the robbery yet?’ as he approaches the house – endearingly stupid, his late-flowering enthusiasm for the music which they use as a cover is hilarious. James Fleet gives a wonderful turn as the cross-dressing Major, who only really finds his voice when admiring the cut of a dress, and Stephen Wight is literally the butt of the joke with a hilarious sequence in which he is repeatedly on the wrong end of a revolving blackboard. Ben Miller as the misanthropist of the outfit has an excellent deadpan delivery and some very funny malapropisms resulting from his Romanian mother tongue. As the quintessential English lady of the title, Marcia Warren perfectly captures this stereotypical post war character – slightly batty, always ready with a cup of tea, but with a steely moral courage that has led her to write several strongly worded letters to the Times about the wickedness of the Nazis.
Overall, this is a highly entertaining show, full of wit and physical comedy expertly delivered by a high-class cast, with skilful direction and a script overhaul which certainly fulfills its brief. And to top it all, this was a preview – if this show can go smoothly with all its technical wizardry and physical comedy, we don’t want to hear any more excuses from producers who claim that they can’t get a show ready for the first performance.