Review: The Ladykillers – Gielgud Theatre

‘When I am old I shall wear purple’ It’s the little old ladies you should watch out for beneath that frail, mauve-clad exterior lies an inner steel as a group of thieves soon discover in Graham Linehan’s thrilling adaptation of The Ladykillers.

The classic Ealing comedy now transfers to the stage though, rather than trying to recreate the classic film, Linehan has used it as the solid foundation for a thoroughbred stage comedy that stands on its own two feet.

It’s 1956 in Kings Cross and elderly widow Mrs Wilberforce has just let her spare room to Professor Marcus. Professor Marcus seems the ideal tenant, educated, well-mannered and a conductor for a chamber quartet. Or so it seems on the surface. In fact, the ‘professor’ is in fact the ringleader of a criminal gang intent on robbing a security van and using Mrs Wilberforce’s home as their safe house, the musicians nothing more than a band of career criminals. As Mrs Wilberforce is drawn unawares into the plot, things begin to go wrong and, as they say, crime never pays. Is frail Mrs Wilberforce about to be the gang’s next victim or is she stronger than they assume?

This is good old-fashioned comedy – and that’s not a derogatory observation. Linehan’s script is packed with witty one-liners, carefully constructed to build up the comic mayhem but keeping it just the right side of total absurdity. Director Sean Foley’s production conducts all the elements much like the assembled orchestral quartet, increasing tempo and counter harmony to create a medley that grows to a thrilling crescendo. It’s testament to the production that the farce seems wholly believable rather than the absurdity it really is.

A universally strong company gives each of these larger than life characters a detailed and well-drawn depth, led by Peter Capaldi’s Professor Marcus. Capaldi’s performance is captivating, easily convincing as a man who can draw disparate elements together through charm and just the hint of inner darkness and menace. There is also fine work from the rest of the gang. James Fleet’s ineffectual Major with a secret passion for dresses, Stephen Wight’s OCD, pill-popping neurotic Harry, Clive Rowe’s simple, blundering One-Shot and Ben Miller’s trigger happy hitman Louis.

Standing up for the moral majority, Marcia Warren’s Mrs Wilberforce is beautifully detailed creation; outwardly frail and confused she can’t quite come to terms with the fact that her charming lodger is a master criminal.

Ben and Max Ringham’s musical score adds a cinematic period feel and Scott Penrose’s special effects provide many gasps of delight and surprise.

Alongside the cast though, Michael Taylor’s spectacular set is the true star of this show. Packed full of surprises and effects, this multi level set provides plenty of visual treats and frames the action perfectly. It adds spectacle but in total context of the show without seeming gratuitous.

A good old-fashioned farce, with a strong storyline driving the humour, The Ladykillers is a classic comedy but one that, in this staging, seems fresh. So does the little old lady overcome the master criminals? That would be telling, just go see for yourself – and mind out for the freight train to Newcastle.

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