For his first foray into writing for the stage, Graham Linehan has turned to one of the best-loved Ealing comedies. He's been keen to make it clear though that people going to see his version of The Ladykillers
shouldn't expect a faithful adaptation of the film, as he's instead taken the basic story as a starting point and given it his own spin. (And as such I won't be making comparisons to the original.) The setting's still 1953 though, and as we start the elderly Mrs Wilberforce (Marcia Warren) is trying to convince a long-suffering policeman (Harry Peacock) that the local shopkeeper is an escaped Nazi. Her ability to spot crime isn't quite what she thinks it is though, as when Professor Marcus (Peter Capaldi) arrives wanting to rent a room from her, she falls for his story that he and his friends are a string quintet studiously rehearsing. They are, of course, a gang of crooks, and Mrs Wilberforce's house is conveniently close to King's Cross Station, which plays a major role in the heist they're planning.
Linehan has said he's applied some of the characterisation behind his most famous TV show Father Ted
to the show, and so if a robber has a characteristic, it's taken to the extreme. So Clive Rowe's dim-witted former boxer One-Round is the
dimmest man imaginable, while Stephen Wight's pill-popping Harry changes personality depending on which drug he's just taken, including one which sends him on an obsessive-compulsive cleaning spree. The cast of familiar faces is rounded off by Ben Miller as Louis, the paranoid Romanian psycho, and James Fleet as Major Courtney, the stuttering con-man with a fondness for women's clothing. Sean Foley directs a production that could be a tiny bit snappier but overall hits all the right comic notes. My only other criticism would be that the black comedy tone isn't quite consistently hit, Foley seems to pull back from some of the gleeful darkness available in a story whose second half revolves around a group of men trying to murder a seemingly helpless old lady.
Michael Taylor's set is unquestionably as much a star of the show as any of the actors though. A huge crooked house, half of which is on an economically-used revolve, it seems to have an unending supply of little surprises, trap doors and trickery (special effects by Michael Taylor) and the house's reaction (it does pretty much have a personality of its own) to the frequent passing of trains at the nearby tracks is a highlight. There's also a car chase featuring remote controlled cars driving up the walls, and just when you think you've seen all of it, the set reveals another aspect for the finale. Vanessa admitted on the way in that she had such high expectations of enjoying this that it was basically unfair to expect them to be met; on the way out she was pleased to say that they had been.The Ladykillers
by Graham Linehan, from the screenplay by William Rose, is booking until the 14th of April at the Gilegud Theatre.