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A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!




Edward Snape for Fiery Angel in Association with Stage Entertainment UK, Fiery Dragons, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, Olympus Theatricals, Studio Canal and Jason Haigh-Ellery present


The Ladykillers


Photo by Hugo Glendinn


Adapted for the stage by Graham Linehan


Directed by Sean Foley


Set and Costume design by Michael Taylor


Lighting design by James Farncombe


Sound design by Ben and Max Ringham


Special effects created by Scott Penrose 


Gielgud Theatre


Now extended until April 14, 2012



The classic Ealing film this entertaining production is drawn from, The Ladykillers (1955) tickled the funny-bones of its audiences, at the same time as it reflected their country’s austere, Post-War mood. Its storyline is admittedly, rife with clichés, such as Prof. Marcus, (Alec Guinness), the ‘gentleman’ leader of a five man gang of amateur crooks, who stands in for the privileged classes and the crimes they routinely get away with, with One-Round, the group’s proverbial big lug, representing the great unwashed. A film starring the aforementioned Guinness and a young Peter Sellers would be tough, if not impossible to top, on stage or screen, but the most difficult act to follow was and remains, Katie Johnson, who stole every scene as the definitively adorable on screen old lady, Mrs. Louisa Wilberforce, still donned in long Edwardian dress and high button shoes in her tottering house at King’s Cross, in the increasingly brash 1950’s. When canny Prof. Marcus arrives, on the premise of renting the room Mrs. Wilberforce has advertised in the local newsagents, spewing gentlemanly spiel, he spins a yarn about being a member of a five man string quartet needing absolute solitude and quiet in order to practice their music, when in reality, the gang intends to utilize her place to solidify their plans for a heist.

The play opens as every fan of the film hopes it might, with Mrs. Wilberforce (Marcia Warren) confiding in the bobby on the beat, Constable MacDonald (Harry Peacock) about her latest suspicions generated by the increasing number of ‘unusual’ accents punctuating her once familiar landscape. Ms. Warren is delightful from the first as Mrs. Wilberforce, demurely side-stepping imitation of the legendary Ms. Johnson, by making the part her own, while retaining the essential essence of the original’s dotty charms. Mrs. Wilberforce is nothing if not ladylike, making her something of an endearing antique, even in the 1950’s. In the lopsided pile of bricks by the railroad tracks she calls home, she’s surrounded by memories, and the highly detailed and  surprisingly versatile set, designed by Michael Taylor, who’s also responsible for the wonderfully appropriate costumes, has some nice touches to indicate this, i.e. an intermittently slanting black and white photo of the late Mr. Wilberforce in his Navy Captain’s uniform, and a large covered birdcage, stage left, containing the occasionally speaking, General Gordon, who, to one crook, resembles a ‘shrunken baby in a sock’ as a skin disease has made the old bird featherless. The audience never actually sees the unfortunate creature, who ‘can’t tolerate light’, though he takes a bow in his own fashion. Witnessing what happens when a train roars by the ramshackle house is also fun! 

Harry Peacock is spot-on as the Constable, humorously turning to the audience as he raises an eyebrow, while cocking an ear towards Mrs. Wilberforce as she pours him endless cups of tea and confides her latest fears about this and that, which he seemingly, considers totally normal for someone of her advanced age. This phenomena generates unexpected tinges of nostalgia for a time (not that long ago) when elderly people were not only permitted to remain in their own homes throughout their declining years, but encouraged and enabled to do so by routinely enacted assistance from family, friends and/or neighbours who considered it only right and fitting that they do so. Here, Mrs. Wilberforce is a smile-generating old lady among shadowy males, apart from the stoically cheery Constable. The fact that Ms. Warren retains her beloved character’s bemusing, oddly affecting qualities as she moves about the stage in her long Edwardian gowns, convincingly playing a woman who still finds it difficult to believe a gentleman could really be a crook at her advanced age, makes her performance something of a wonder!

The ‘crooks’ are all well-cast in their roles, from ring-leader, Prof. Marcus (Peter Capaldi) and his seeming, polar opposite ex-boxer One-Round (Clive Rowe) through worthy pit stops for the wide-boy prat-falls of pickpocket Harry Robinson, (Stephen Wight), originally, debonair moustache twirling of contradictory Major Courteney (James Fleet) and the knife-edge mood swings of Romanian Louis Harvey (Ben Miller). The contrasts between these shady, dualistic characters, juxtaposed against the dogged integrity of Mrs. Wilberforce offer a comedic gold-mine full of opportunities for everything from sight gag and puns, running the gamet to the inevitable, (in the circumstances) still surprising, darkly cryptic humour.  This impressive, deceptively simple mix is imbued with refreshingly top shelf, farcical elements rife with laugh out loud moments throughout. In a dual demonstration of sheer comedic skill, a reoccurring gag between Capaldi as Prof Marcus and Ms. Warren as Mrs. Wilberforce never fails to get an appreciative laugh, despite the fact that it’s enacted intermittently, more or less, like clockwork.

Stephen Wight as ‘allo dalin’ Harry (the role originally performed by Peter Sellers) the pickpocket is very fast-talking and funny, and very adept at physical humour! The audience cringe and chuckle whenever he oh so smoothly slips and slides, but never quite gets out of the way of any and all, potentially nose whacking surfaces. Louis Harvey as Romanian psychopath Ben, adds an edginess that sets up the cryptic bits to come very well, though he still manages to make one feel sorry at the prospect of him ‘buying it.’ As One-Round, Clive Rowe shows yet another facet of his wide–ranging diversity and definite knack for comedy. Having seen and been impressed by Rowe’s dramatic flair in both Chicago and Mother Goose (at Hackney Empire) some years back, (as Panto Dame!), this role came as yet another surprise. In a production where casting is generally economic, every role stands to make its own impression. Beverley Walding as Mrs. Wilberforce’s Edwardian clad guest, Mrs. Jane Tromleyton makes a splash as she shamelessly fawns over the ‘musicians’, comically embodying Prof. Marcus’s smugly vocalized, very apt conclusion thereafter that ‘Being fooled by art is one of the primary pleasures of the middle class.’

There are moments of inspired lunacy in this production which draw on adaptor Graham Linehan’s influences as well, most notably and hilarious among them, the group of old ladies who come to Mrs. Wilberforce’s house for tea, which includes some side-splittingly funny Monty Phythonesque escapades enacted by two very big men in drag, who oddly, blend in, albeit in their own way, among the old ladies.

James Farncombe’s Nosforatu lighting encourages laughs whenever strangers call at Mrs. Wilberforce’s place and Ben and Max Ringham’s inspired sound design gets a well received airing on a number of occasions, and is especially appreciated in conjunction with the unfolding layers of Michael Taylor’s revolving set, and the comically low – tech, ‘special effects’ of Scott Penrose – seeing them is believing!

American William Rose, a resident of Canada who volunteered with Scotland’s Black Watch in WWII, wrote the original screenplay of The Ladykillers when it ‘came to him’ in its entirety, after he’d been thinking he’d like to write a different sort of story about good vs. evil. Its uncanny reflections on British culture and class could almost be compared to those of American Alan Lerner and German Frederick Lowe’s similarly uncanny musical adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion - My Fair Lady (1956), only in reverse order. Here, the original screenplay’s storyline, similarly, a real stand-out in terms of originality, offered potential for subtle updating in the context of a play, and the additional lines its adaptor, Graham Lineham, of Father Ted and The It Crowd fame, added, lend the onstage version of the story a cleverly interjected, ‘been there’, slyly topical, déjà vu air. For example, a slow building, but nonetheless, discernible ripple of tittering laughter, almost akin to a swelling undercurrent, pulsed through the theatre at the mere suggestion of bankers being dodgy and a mention of the ‘barbarians of Fleet Street.’

The Ladykillers was, and is still, a classic, in its present incarnation, much in the way a classy old car is. So do yourself a favour – get your tickets ASAP, pack away your cares, and go along for the rollicking ride!




Box Office: 0844 482 5130

Follow The Ladykillers on twitter at: @ladykillersUK

Gielgud Theatre
35 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Greater London W1D 6AR

Booking until February 18th

Times: Mon – Sat @ 7.45pm, Wed and Sat @ 3pm

Prices: £12.50 - £55.00 (additional premium seats @ £85.00)



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