Review: The Ladykillers

The basic plot of The Ladykillers is fairly well known, given the exemplary 1955 film starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers (100% on Rotten Tomatoes) and its slightly lacklustre Coen Brothers 2004 remake with Tom Hanks (55% on Rotten Tomatoes). For those of you who have been living under a rock and therefore too busy licking green slime to even hear about one of those movies, here follows a plot summary.

The eccentric but gentlemanly Professor Marcus (Peter Capaldi – The Thick of It, In the Loop) comes to the home of widowed Mrs Wilberforce (Marcia Warren – Life of Riley, The Cafe) looking to rent a room. She is getting on a bit and lives alone except for a parrot with a rather devastating skin ailment (akin to a diseased rubber glove according to the Professor). Marcus agrees to take the room under the proviso that Mrs Wilberforce allow him the peace and tranquillity in which to practice his music, along with four colleagues, who are preparing for a big concert. Mrs Wilberforce obliges as far as the trains to Newcastle that shake the house will allow. The problem is that Marcus is no professor, and he isn’t a musician either. He’s a criminal mastermind, working on a heist. His colleagues aren’t musicians either – they’re his crew. There’s muscular but slow upstairs One Round (Clive Rowe – The Story of Tracy Beaker, All the Small Things). There’s war veteran, conman and cross-dresser Major Courtney (James Fleet – The Vicar of Dibley, Little Dorrit). There’s Harry Robinson, opportunist thief and regular pill taker (Stephen Wight – Whites, Threesome). And last, but not least, Romanian knife-man and gynogerontophobe (fear of old women), Louis Harvey (Ben Miller – The Armstrong and Miller Show, Primeval). Together they’re planning a heist, but Marcus is yet to come up with an ending). Finally, it falls into place – they’ll snatch the loot, drive off in a decoy car, drop the loot at the station, and Mrs Wilberforce will bring it home for them. To persuade her they agree to give a recital of their music for the local old ladies, thinking that they will be long gone before they have to do it. However, the local bobby helps Mrs Wilberforce with the massive trunk, and the criminals think they’ve been rumbled. However, they manage to work out that they’re not suspected. They try to make their getaway, only to bungle it, when Marcus knocks into the cello case containing the money. The money is spilled, and the beans with it. Mrs Wilberforce refuses to be bought off, she refuses to be persuaded to turn a blind eye, and she refuses to allow them to leave, taking the money away. What’s worse is that the ladies are coming expecting a musical quintet. The criminals perform a twenty minute (not in real life, thankfully) appalling piece of music, but con their way into making the ladies’ (with the exception of Mrs Wilberforce) love it. They still cannot persuade any corruption in Mrs Wilberforce and resolve to kill her. One by one they try and one by one they fail, ending up killing themselves, each other, and generally getting things wrong. In the end, the crooks are dead and Mrs Wilberforce ends up with the money.

With a cast of some of the brightest stars in comedy and stage, a script by Graham Linehan (Father Ted, Big Train, Black Books, The IT Crowd), and directed by Sean Foley (The Play What I Wrote, Pinter’s People, Brass Eye), you would expect The Ladykillers to be good. It’s not. It’s bloody brilliant. It’s difficult to get a lot of people laughing uproariously with theatre, but The Ladykillers does it. Every joke is exceptionally crafted and timed to perfection. The dialogue is enchanting, with plenty of wit and repartee, but not so much as to ignore the plot, which moves along at a good pace. It’s not just the talking that’s funny though. Ben Miller is outstanding in his reactions to other character’s lines and the group’s predicament, but he is not alone in providing comedy that doesn’t upstage the person talking. All the cast are superb in their characters, even with their oddball natures. Visual gags take their share of the laughs too – from the squawked repeated lines of the parrot General Gordon to the one-use movement of all the furniture and set dressings when the train thunders past to give that extra bit of laughter to Marcus’ need for quiet, the funny stuff keeps on coming. The little details make a difference – Marcus’ shadow creeping horror film style across the window of the front door accompanied by a swell of tense music, relieved by a single doorbell in particular stands out, as does Louis’ incompatibility with English idioms (old women, he states, “give him the penises”).

The set is amazing. The whole of Mrs Wilberforce’s house has been constructed in the stage on a rotating disc. We see the house from all angles as the criminals climb through windows, fall from chimney pots, and hide in cupboards. The majority of the action takes place inside the house, and this is split level – we can see the living room and front door and the separate kitchen on one level, Marcus’ room where the gang meets to plan the heist on another. At the back is a small landing leading to the lavatory and a balcony over hang. Stephen Wight gets credit here for a deceivingly convincing fall through the banister of the balcony, hanging by one hand into the living room below. But that is not all the set brings – there are lights throughout the house that flash on and off as the trains rattle by, and the picture of Mrs Wilberforce’s late husband that just won’t stay straight to the annoyance of Professor Marcus. The house has subsidence and the sloped nature of the set adds to the madcap nature of the piece. There’s also a railway tunnel on the obverse side of the house, that rotates around to show us Marcus’ final demise. Beyond that there’s also the model cars that drive up the wall of the house to show us the robbery (still with voices by the cast), and excellent moving chairs and an appearing knife that add little details to the piece.

The cast are simply outstanding. Ben Miller takes my personal award for best in show, simply because of his brilliant reactions, excellent delivery, but also for achieving the difficult task of sustaining his character’s Romanian accent for the entire piece without a single slip. There’s also some difficult sleight of hand work with his trusty knife, and it comes off a treat. He is the star amongst stars though. Peter Capaldi is equal parts deviousness and artistic temperament as Professor Marcus, grounding the fast paced dialogue whilst not damaging the play’s momentum. Stephen Wight, perhaps relatively unknown to many audience members, has a great stage presence and brings a genuine spark to the drug addled youngster he plays. Clive Lowe gets a laugh every single time he utters “I’m Mr Lawson” or “Am I Mr Lawson?”; a brilliant display of mental vacancy, coupled with excellent timing. James Fleet reprises parts of his Hugo character – the bumbling posh one, but brings a new vivacity to it. The Major isn’t just posh, he’s a downright coward, but he’s by no means empty headed. But Fleet plays it to a tee, and he deserves a bucket load of praise for his reaction when he’s caught dancing around the stage pseudo-wearing Mrs Wilberforce’s purple dress alone. Marcia Warren, by contrast, is the straight guy. With all the madness that’s occurring around her, she’s admirable for not getting whipped up and thrown out by it, but rising above it and remaining a rock to bounce the madness off.

In the desire for a fair review I’d like to find something to criticise, but there isn’t anything that I can think of. There’s so much that could have gone wrong with this play, but nothing does. It’s perfect. Almost too perfect. I genuinely have to wonder if they were just having the best show of the run. Probably not though; I get the feeling that it’s this good every time. There it is then – it’s not good. It’s great. It’s one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. Miss it and you’ll kick yourself.

The Ladykillers runs till 14 April 2012 at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave., London. Shows Monday to Saturday 7.45pm and Wednesday & Saturday at 3pm For more info see http://www.theladykillers.co.uk/.

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