It will come as little surprise to you, gentle reader, that I am not particularly familiar with the 1955 Ealing film starring Alec Guinness, on which this theatre production of The Ladykillers is based. I understand from reading the programme that Graham Linehan’s stage version uses the film as a touchstone, but that it very much goes off-piste story- and script-wise from the original. So if you are a purist Ladykillers devotee, this play might disappoint or upset you.
Mrs Chrisparkle and I are neither of those, so we found this scatty and demented story of five bungling crims nicking £200,000 from the Kings Cross train very funny and endearing. On the face of it the characters are all stereotypes, but Mr Linehan’s writing invests each of them with their own strong personalities, some of which nicely clash with the hoodlum role they ought to fulfil as part of the gang, and which successfully raises the comic potential. They are also rather cleverly played as real human beings so that they don’t become grotesques. The story is pleasantly daft, and once the initial success of the crime starts to unravel, there is only one possible outcome, which you delightfully enjoy watching as it works its way to fruition.
The set is fantastic, with its slopey floors and weird-angled doors, beautifully suggestive of Mrs Wilberforce’s ramshackled, subsided cottage, deliberately targeted by Hitler because of her strong letters of anti-Nazi complaint to the newspapers. The special effects when a train passes close by are surprising and very funny, and get a deserved round of applause. The set turns around at one point to reveal the ledge outside the lodger’s window, which is used to great comic and dramatic effect. The only time the set gets too clever for itself was with the use of model cars climbing the outside wall as a graphic illustration of how the heist took place – the cars didn’t move smoothly enough, the collisions lacked visual impact, and it just didn’t work for me.
The show is certainly helped along by some full-throttle comic performances. Key to the whole thing is Mrs Wilberforce herself, the moral, kindly little old lady who accidentally becomes complicit in the crime. Michele Dotrice plays her with very polite dottiness; everyone has a little old lady like this in their family or in their street, and recognising those familiar traits is a delight. One of the funniest scenes was her reaction to the teatime concert for her friends and neighbours (a hilariously motley bunch of “ladies” who look like a nightmare version of My Fair Lady’s Ascot Gavotte). Her comic timing throughout the play is a joy and it’s great to see her back on the stage.
Professor Marcus, the mastermind of the villains, is played with a perfect blend of pomposity and gutter by Paul Bown. His role is the least easy to play for laughs – he is the straight man of the team, whilst all his colleagues have their quirky foibles; the cerebral one, and he plays it with great assurance and thinly-veiled nastiness. There are two other great comic performances; I loved Clive Mantle’s thoroughly cowardly Major Courtney, avoiding every opportunity of being put on the spot, milking the agony of descending to this criminal level yet sneakily working out ways to bag all the loot for himself. His unexpected fondness for women’s clothing starts to take hold during the course of the play and is superbly portrayed – resulting in a splendid appearance at curtain call; officially one of the best staged and funniest curtain calls I’ve seen in years.
I was also very impressed with William Troughton as Harry Robinson, the drug-addicted young waster with a nasty thieving habit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen drug addition (not a particularly nice subject) dealt with so humorously in a play before. His pratfalls and physical comedy are absolutely first rate. Visually he is the spitting image of his father David Troughton and comedically he is a chip off the old block too. These three actors really understand how to play farce; their ensemble interplay was absolutely terrific.
I also liked Chris McCalphy as One-Round, the thuggish doltish member of the group, who makes a very credible simpleton with surprising artistic tendencies – a bit like a modern day Bernard Bresslaw. Cliff Parisi as dangerous foreigner Louis Harvey was terse but amusing and there was very nice support from Marcus Taylor as the long-suffering Constable who unwittingly gives Mrs Wilberforce carte blanche absolution at the end.
There are no big lessons or Things That Could Change Your Life about this show, it’s just an affectionate look back at the old film and played purely for laughs. An absolutely full house at Milton Keynes for a Thursday night has got to be a good sign too. It’s touring various parts of the UK and Dublin till April, and I’d certainly recommend it for a funny night out.
P.S. On the unending search for the perfect seat at the Milton Keynes Theatre, for this production we had Stalls seats E20 and 21. Whilst for my taste they were a little far from the stage (they’re not fifth row but eighth), the seats are comfortable, you have plenty of leg room and a joyously uninterrupted view of the stage due to the excellent rake from row D. I think I’d still go for row A as first choice, but row E is definitely a most acceptable alternative.