Following Joel and Ethan Coen’s fairly disastrous 2004 film remake, it may be considered a daring team that takes on Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers (1955) again. But writer Graham Linehan (Father Ted, The IT Crowd) and director Sean Foley have proved just such brave men. And their rather ingenious stage version of Mackendrick’s venerable comedy, now in the West End following a successful run at Liverpool Playhouse, yields considerably more entertaining results than did the Coen bros' misguided film.
One of the most beloved and best-known of the Ealing comedies, Mackendrick’s black farce concerns a gang of robbers who, posing as members of a string quintet, rent a room in the subsidence-afflicted King’s Cross abode of an elderly widow, Mrs. Wilberforce, from where they plan to carry out their next job: a raid on a security van. The humour emerges, in the main, from the way in which the genteelly innocent (yet surprisingly tough-minded) Mrs. W becomes involved in their nefarious actions, first as an unwitting accomplice and then as an unwitting foil.
Retaining the outline, structure and time-period of William Rose’s screenplay, Linehan gives the material a few contemporary spins, most of which work very well. Character histories are amusingly fleshed out - the gang now includes a cross-dresser and a pill-popper amongst their number - while the classic scene in which Mrs. Wilberforce’s friends descend on the house expecting a recital is cleverly re-imagined as a parody of “avant-garde” composition.
But what’s more surprising are the elements of inventive expressionist dash that Foley’s direction brings to the evening. Michael Taylor’s superb design is a star in itself, constructing the house as a lop-sided, tilting creation, its contents set a-quiver as trains pass by. And in a brilliant sequence that elicited a round of applause, the heist itself plays out with model trains and cars whizzing across the wall of the building. (Now, that’s the way to do driving on stage, Driving Miss Daisy people!)
Such effects would be wasted without the human element, though. And the performances are all wonderful. Peter Capaldi brings gleaming-eyed glee to the Alec Guinness role as the smugly self-satisfied and increasingly unhinged would-be criminal mastermind. Clive Rowe is adorable as the ex-boxer “One-Round,” the most dim-witted but also the most good-hearted of the group, who, in this version, reveals untapped musical potential, while Ben Miller’s volatile, old-lady-hating Romanian, James Fleet’s befuddled Major and Stephen Wight’s spiv are equally enjoyable. And as Mrs. Wilberforce the great Marcia Warren flutes, flutters and fusses beguilingly, while finally suggesting as steely a moral resolve as did Katie Johnson (whom she sometimes resembles) in the 1955 film.
The endless series of running gags and slapstick moments occasionally pall, and the evening loses is spark a little in the prolonged no-honour-amongst-thieves climax, though there are some great touches even here, especially the very memorable manner in which Rowe and Capaldi’s characters meet their fates. Super-slick but with enough eccentric elements to keep you on your toes, Foley’s production exudes assurance. It’s terrific fun.
The production runs for 2 hours 15 minutes and is booking until 14th April 2012. Website here.