In the programme notes, Graham Linehan claims that what finally decided him to write the stage version of The Ladykillers was when he went to see The 39 Steps. “I thought, if I’m allowed to be that relaxed with the source material, maybe I should do it.”
The stage version of The 39 Steps was a radical and imaginative overhaul of the film, paring it down to just four actors and an extremely minimalist set. The same certainly cannot be said for The Ladykillers. For a start, Michael Taylor’s set is anything but minimalist; an entire crooked house fills the stage, revolving to allow us to see both front and back, wonky staircases rising drunkenly to the rafters. Large it may be, but it is so stuffed with bric-a-brac as to feel claustrophobic and slightly dangerous. Tables travel, doors open and close by themselves, parrot cages rustle and squawk and the Esher-esque monstrosity sometimes seems to take on a life of its own, almost overshadowing the action taking place within.
The storyline remains broadly faithful to the Ealing comedy; a quintet of crooks get together, posing as musicians, to plan an audacious heist in King’s Cross, using the ringleader’s innocent little old landlady, Mrs Wilberforce, as an unwitting accomplice. When she discovers the plot the eccentric gang decided that she has to be silenced, with unexpected results. Linehan’s alterations are primarily to the tone of the piece; what was originally a black, macabre comedy with creepily sadistic episodes has become a madcap, Carry-On style farce, the violence now limited to pratfalls, comedy knives and slapstick impalings. The crooks themselves have been expanded to cartoonish stereotypes, more laughable than sinister. This change in tempo is actually very successful, giving the play a warm, light-hearted, essentially British charm; “You’re making a mockery of teatime!” howls Major Courtney, provoking bellows of laughter from the audience. Especially inspired was the addition of a very funny scene in which the hapless villains, in their guise as musicians, treat a group of elderly “ladies” to an ear-rending cacophony which they pass off to the bewildered old dears as avant-garde improvisation. Rather less successful was the performance of the heist itself; a brilliant concept involving Scalextric cars looked in practice rather clunky and amateurish.
Essentially, for a farcical comedy, the acting was very good. In the original film the script and direction were heavily weighted towards the fantastic Alec Guinness as ringleader Professor Marcus, and sinister Herbert Lom as thuggish Louis. Linehan and director Sean Foley have sensibly evened things out, giving each character a story and importance of their own. John Gordon Sinclair does a great job as Professor Marcus, his smug and oily demeanour turning to increasingly desperate hysteria as he struggles to keep his little band of misfits from imploding and Mrs Wilberforce from stepping on his trailing scarf. Ralf Little shows real mastery of physical comedy as Harry, now a pill-popping wide boy with manic cleaning tendencies who gets bopped on the head, thwacked in the back and punched in the stomach with awful inevitability. Chris McCalphy is wonderfully dim-witted as One-Round and Simon Day excels as the dodgy Major Courtney, now depicted as a man with an interesting, barely repressed secret. Con O’Neill played Louis as a belligerent, bawling Eastern European with a tenuous grasp of the English language and a debilitating fear of “oiled ladies”. And finally the “oiled lady” herself, a genteel but resolute Angela Thorne, floating around her dilapidated old house making endless cups of tea, “like,” says the Professor, “a wraith in a pinny.”
Aside from the shift in the humour, the play is actually not very different to the film, which will delight fans. It would have been interesting to see an adaptation with a little more invention, imagination and the guts to break away from its Ealing guy-ropes, but maybe that would have been too much of a risk. As it is The Ladykillers is effortless enjoyment, an evening of old fashioned belly-laughs and fun. And there’s not much wrong with that.
Review by Genni Trickett
Running Time: 2 hrs 15 min
Age Restrictions: Recommended for 10+ years
Show Opened: 29th Jun 2013
Booking Until: 25th Jan 2014
404 Strand, London, WC2R 0NH
9th July 2013