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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE LADYKILLERS
at the Gielgud

BULLETPROOF CAPER
By DONALD HUTERA

  Marcia Warren and Harry Peacock/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

One of the smartest aspects of this often highly amusing reinvention of the classic 1955 British black comedy starring Alec Guinness is how well it’s transferred from screen to stage without losing the original’s dark, dotty sense of humour. If anything the possibilities for mirth have been expanded so that the piece becomes a more than slightly macabre clown show imbued with a deep appreciation of eccentric absurdities. Loaded with sight gags, it’s often pitched as broad slapstick but at the same time seems quintessentially English.
 
The set-up is deliciously simple. Mrs Wilberforce, an elderly widow with an ailing pet parrot (heard in the stage version but, wisely, completely unseen), dwells in a cozy but structurally defective house alongside the train tracks of Kings Cross station. The forgetful old dear is a bit of a fretful fantasist but really quite sweet. Barging into her genteel midst is a handful of criminals led by the so-called Professor Marcus, a would-be musical lodger but actually the shrewd yet plainly deranged mastermind of an oddball gang about to pull off a robbery that will feature Mrs Wilberforce as their cover and unwitting accomplice.
 
Adapted from William Rose’s screenplay by British sit-com writer Graham Linehan, The Ladykillers has been fashioned by director Sean Foley (one half of The Right Size, the duo that concocted the Olivier-winning The Play What I Wrote) into a sly, rollicking farce with a nugget of morality at its centre. What’s so droll is that the entire premise rests upon the frail shoulders of a gullible senior citizen. How ironic that it should take this upright soul – plus the innately yet comically damaged characters of Marcus and his nefarious associates themselves – to completely undo the gang and indirectly demonstrate that crime doesn’t pay.
 
As soon as the curtain rises it’s clear that the first thing to praise is the design. Michael Taylor’s multi-level set – all skewed angles and topped by a spiral staircase pointing finger-like to heaven – is inspired. Half of it is on a revolve, allowing the robbery to be neatly staged using miniature vehicles that traverse the front wall of Mrs Wilberforce’s home. An even larger part of the pleasure the production affords is in the casting. Mostly the performers exhibit just the right degree of cartoonishly cuckoo exaggeration, indulging in a precise yet buoyant physicality into which tinctures of subtlety are occasionally squeezed.
 
Cadaverously thin, with a crazed gleam in his bespectacled eyes, Peter Capaldi’s Marcus is the gang’s quick-thinking and perversely gentlemanly ringleader. Capitalising on the ruse of being head of the unlikeliest string quintet ever, he spurs his cohorts on with an almost artistic sense of purpose. He also has a cherishable penchant for dropping choice epigrams in orotund tones: "It requires just a soupcon of extreme thuggery" was one of my favourites, or, in a priceless aside to the audience, "Being fooled by art is one of the primary pleasures afforded the middle-class."
 
Capaldi’s expertise is abetted by James Fleet as a nervous ex-major and closet cross-dresser; Clive Rowe as One-Round, a former boxer turned dim-witted mountain of flesh, who was obviously bashed once too often in the head; Stephen Wright (in Peter Sellers’ movie role) as Harry, a young ne’er do well whose pill-popping habits send him on uncontrollable cleaning binges; and Ben Miller’s Louis, a hot-tempered, knife-carrying immigrant who couples mangled English with a deep-seated phobia about old ladies. Marcia Warren's Mrs W is a perfect foil, anchoring the at times almost Marxian (as in Brothers, not Karl) madness unraveling around her. There’s also creditable work from Harry Peacock, all suppressed exasperation as her infinitely polite local constable.
 
The Ladykillers is lightweight fun deftly done, but could it be more than that? In his programme note Foley makes a persuasive case that the characters are a still-relevant compendium of state-of-the-nation traits, with Marcus and the Major representing the conning, corrupt ruling class; Harry as values-blind youth; One-Round the brutalized masses; and Miller’s Louis the dangerously unassimilated foreigner. This concept renders Mrs Wilberforce, whose late husband was in the Navy, as the last bastion of tradition, decency and the kind of intrepid idealism that allowed Britain to become an Empire. It’s a tempting reading, but, as Foley’s continually rib-tickling, lively and unpretentious production shows, he’s not one to – as the Brits says – over-egg the pudding.

 


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