Screen To Stage: The Ladykillers
Posted on Thursday December 8, 2011, 12:10 by Helen O'Hara in Empire States
The Ealing comedies are still some of the finest ever committed to screen, films that are as wise as they are witty. And one of the chief among them, jostling with Kind Hearts And Coronets for the, er, crown*, is The Ladykillers, wherein Sir Alec Guinness portrays a massively creepy master criminal intent on a great train robbery. The film has now hit the stage, at London's Gielgud Theatre, with Peter Capaldi in the lead, a Graham Linehan-adapted script and direction by Sean Foley. The good news? It's significantly better than the Coen Brothers remake of a few years back, and really a hilarious night out in its own right.
The story remains unchanged: Capaldi plays the nefarious Professor Marcus, a man of dubious academic distinction but unquestionable criminal intent. He inveigles his way into the spare room of little old Mrs Wilberforce (Marcia Warren), whose Kings Cross home provides the perfect base for his plan to rob a security van. There, he meets his accomplices who pose as members of a string quintet, carrying their instruments and playing a recording to allay her suspicions. The mismatched crew includes Ben Miller's Romanian gangster Louis, James Fleet's none-more public-school Major, Clive Rowe's punch-drunk ex-boxer and Stephen Wight's pill-popping hep cat. However, while the robbery goes according to plan, the group reckons without Mrs Wilberforce's keen interest in music and longing to impress her circle of friends with her cool, artistic new guests.
It builds, in other words, into a classic farce. Crossed wires - the gang doesn't realise that the police pays no attention to Mrs Wilberforce's wilder conspiracy theories - lead them to conclude that she is a threat to their getaway, and a series of coincidences, overreactions and murder attempts by the gang lead them all from bad to worse, while the innocent little old lady remains largely oblivious.
But enough about the plot: what about the execution? (Ahaha) Well, the good news is that this is an ensemble working at full tilt to bring the funny, and if the results aren't quite as hilarious as recent London stage hits like London Assurance or One Man Two Guvnors, they're extremely close. Capaldi's Marcus is slimy to begin with but descends inexorably into gibbering homicidal mania; Miller's Louis expertly blends a pleasantly wandering accent and propensity for malapropisms with an almost endearing sense of ruthlessness, and Rowe's One-Punch is adorable in the same way that a grizzly bear is adorable: big, cuddly and extremely dangerous. The prim, slightly pathetic and borderline-dotty Mrs Wilberforce (and the way that Capaldi rolls out her name is a constant delight) more than holds her own against the male cast, however, tottering about up and down the stage's higgeldy-piggeldy stairs with endless cups of tea and cooing devotedly over her sick parrot. Her nice sit-downs with the local constable, who treats her like a much beloved but ultimately barmy great-aunt, are mini delights in themselves.
As you'll have read in every other review out there, the set is also magnificent - an Escher-esque construction of tilted floors and multiple leaning levels. On the night we saw it, a bannister fell down; on press night, a door knob kept popping off. Both were handled with such flair by the cast that they almost appeared deliberate, and in any case such teething problems should disappear later in the run. The use of toy cars to stage the heist is also the most amusing onstage use of a child's playthings since the Reduced Shakespeare Company's interpretative dance of Troilus & Cressida involving a small clockwork dinosaur.
All in all, a worthy adaptation of one of Ealing's crown jewels and an asset to the West End. Seek it out while it's here.
*Or, if you will, coronet. Ahaha. Full disclosure: I think Kind Hearts is better and argued as much here, but The Ladykillers is almost as delightfully twisted and evil.