Review – The Ladykillers, Milton Keynes Theatre, 24th January 2013

The LadykillersIt 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.

Michele DotriceMrs 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.

Paul BownThe 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.

LadiesThe 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.

Clive MantleProfessor 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.

William TroughtonI 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.

Chris McCalphyI 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.

Cliff ParisiThere 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.

Review – Catch-up blog for the Derngate

I’ve managed to get really behind with feeding back about all the shows we’ve seen recently. So I’m going to do a right rush job here, with apologies to anyone who’s remotely interested.
Jimmy Carr
Saw Jimmy Carr on Sunday 6th March at the Derngate. I had been really looking forward to that one as I’d never seen him live before and he has a reputation for being a pretty strong act.

We enjoyed it but with reservations. He did a couple of sequences where the jokes followed the format of a lecture, with powerpoint type illustrations. These illustrations were rather crude and had the effect of limiting the joke, confining it to just how the illustration looked. With no illustration, it would have played on one’s imagination more, which would have been funnier.

Another point – and I am no prude – BUT… At one point (actually with one of those illustrations) he condemns Jim Davidson as being a racist comedian – and I have no problem with that condemnation. But on the other hand, during the course of the evening I think he told about 12 jokes that were basically about men raping women. Not sex – sex is funny. Rape isn’t funny. I think it’s a bit hypocritical to complain about one form of abuse and then make fun of another. Call me old-fashioned.

Anyway, entertaining thought the evening was, I didn’t think he got the rapturous reception from the audience that I expected. Sally Ann HaywardOne guy from the circle turned on him and said he was boring. I had some sympathy.

Thursday 11th March, another Screaming Blue Murder, at the Underground. Three comics – Sally Ann Heyward, John Gordillo and Noel James. We liked them all. John GordilloCan’t go into too much detail about their routines as, frankly, I have largely forgotten them. But it was a good night as always. Noel JamesWe’re not seeing the next Screaming Blue Murder, there’s just too much going on at the moment to fit it in. Shame. Hopefully there’ll be another season later in the year.

Thursday 18th March saw the Lyric Hammersmith’s production of Filter Company’s Three Sisters by Chekhov. I love a bit of Chekhov, me. I would think of myself as being a bit of a purist when it comes to this. I know you can successfully push and pull Shakespeare around by modernising productions and it still works. Would it work with Chekhov? I had my doubts.

Three Sisters To be honest, the main problem I had with this is that it wasn’t quite avant garde enough to be a really modern production, nor was it classically purist enough for it to be, well, classic. One of the company’s trademarks is that they amplify sound where you don’t expect it. And this can be very effective. I liked very much their amplifying the whispering conversation between Andrey and Natasha at the end of the first scene. At another point, they amplified the sound of a kettle boiling. I found it quite riveting. That was when Mrs Chrisparkle started to nod off.

The cast were excellent, and the mishmash of accents added to the modernity of the thing; the Royal’s stage was used extremely well; and it went down well with the audience. The production seemed to dwell on the relationships and love stories (such as they are) in the plot, and not so much on the elusive dream of “getting back to Moscow”. Not quite sure I liked that emphasis. Anyway, the answer is that Chekhov does stand a bit of updating, but I would like to have seen it push the boundaries even more. And I’m a purist. I surprise myself saying that.

Monday 22nd March, the first night locally of Clive Mantle’s performance as Tommy Cooper in “Jus Like That”. I am in total awe of Mr Mantle’s hard work. It’s a huge tour, often staying just one night in a theatre before moving off the next day to some distant venue, etc and etc.

Just Like ThatI had the pleasure of seeing Tommy Cooper at the Palladium when I was ten years old. Dad took me to see “To See Such Fun”, one of those reviews they used to have that just lasted a week. The line up was Tommy Cooper, Clive Dunn, Anita Harris and Russ Conway. I loved it. I got to meet Tommy Cooper briefly in one of the cafes opposite the Palladium before the show started and got his autograph. He was very nice to me. Happy memories.

The problem with Jus’ Like That is an obvious one. Tommy Cooper had his own magic (literally) and Clive Mantle isn’t Tommy Cooper. Tommy Cooper is dead. So this production really is in many respects trying to fulfil an impossible dream. His is a good portrayal of TC, he has the height for it but not quite the bulk, his face is not quite as alcohol and cigar-affected as TC’s and the very pale makeup he wore actually looked a bit creepy to me. (My memory is that TC had quite a ruddy complexion?) The voice is good, the enthusiasm is good, and the script is sometimes word for word what you remember from watching TC on TV in his comedy programmes; but the play itself (especially in the first half, which is basically watching a Tommy Cooper show) relies heavily on the audience loving it from the beginning, and there are some pauses where we obviously should have been continuing to laugh, and we weren’t. It almost required a warm-up act. As it was a Monday, we only had small Sauvignon Blancs to start, rather than the large ones, and we weren’t quite warmed sufficiently.

Clive MantleI found the second half much more interesting, where you see TC backstage, coping with stardom, alcohol, physical ageing; and this is where Clive Mantle comes into his own, as you feel like this is the real thing. Then there is more TC performance stuff, including his final routine – I remember watching it on Live at Her Majesty’s on TV, must be about thirty years ago now – and this is performed to great effect.

I’d definitely recommend it – and Clive Mantle’s performance is outstanding in many respects. But he’s not the real Tommy Cooper, and thus you come away from the theatre slightly more rueful than buzzed with hilarity. Not because of the show, but because he’s no longer with us.

Oh, and it also has the lovely Carla Mendonca, who I saw in Daisy Pulls It Off about 100 years ago.