Transferring a classic film to the stage has more potential pitfalls than planning an armed robbery in the home of an exasperating old lady, but that didn’t put off the team behind The Ladykillers.
Thank goodness for that, for if it had, this theatrically playful, wonderfully witty, enthralling, energetic comic caper may not have made it to the stage.
Set in the 1950s and based on the Alec Guinness-led Ealing comedy of the same period, its tale is simple and timeless. A motley crew of five criminals plan a robbery under the unwitting nose of an aged landlady. When she stumbles across the truth, the nefarious quintet is left in a quandary.
The plotting and scheming of the creative team makes the planning of Peter Capaldi’s ringleader Professor Marcus – a sinisterly charismatic, slightly effete cross between Fagin and the Demon Headmaster – look like the absent-minded scribblings of a small child. Not an opportunity to hit the audience’s collective funny bone with a cudgel is missed, whether it be Graham Linehan’s script, which mixes the simplicity of Airplane-style gags with knowing digs at the audience’s expense, or Sean Foley’s inspired direction, which wrings every ounce of slapstick humour and physical comedy out of his impressive cast.
Michael Taylor’s set alone – a higgledy-piggledy optical illusion of a house in which, on press night, a rogue doorknob desperately tried to steal the show – is a treat in itself, offering a new surprise at every turn.
As long as you are happy to accept that, like the film, the characters are stock stereotypes – the ominous foreigner, the punchdrunk heavy, the loud-mouthed pill-popping youth – then the performers, like everything else, are a treat. James Fleet bumbles, as he does so well, but with added menace, Ben Miller broods against type, while only Clive Rowe feels a little underused as the repetitive former boxer.
Marcia Warren’s Mrs Wilberforce, a picture of sweet, untainted innocence, allows the hoodlums to play up their roles and gives the piece the necessary emotion and sense of peril.
Far be it from me to condone any form of criminality, but if you need to plan a robbery to lay your hands on tickets for The Ladykillers, it might not be a wholly bad idea (though you could try Get Into London Theatre first!). Just don’t plot it in the home of a sweet old lady; it might not end well for you.