Review – The Ladykillers, Gielgud Theatre

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Best to sidestep this intro if you find it too distressing to discover (or have no interest in and why would you?) what goes on in a Whinger’s mystifying unconscious.

People who insist on relating their dreams are about as enthralling as those who share their travel nightmares. But occasionally a Whinger will seek to inflict a condensed version of a previous night’s fancies on the other in the interests of seeking insight, analysis or at least a dribble of interest.

The last one Phil bestowed on Andrew went thus: “I was re-recording my album in a hotel room and Sir Bob Geldof asked if he could come and watch. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t remember the words and the reel-to-reel tape recorder got tangled up and was spewing out tape all over the room. Bob was very nice about it.” Mmmm.

An article in the programme for The Ladykillers reveals the QI origins of the classic 1955 Ealing comedy. William Rose came up with the idea “five criminals were living in a little house with a charming little old lady” in a dream, woke up, told the entire plot and concept to his wife and promptly fell back to sleep. His wife was so struck by the idea that she stayed awake all night and asked him if he could remember it in the morning. He remembered nothing but went on to write the original screenplay from her retelling. How easily The Ladykillers might never have existed.

The next time Andrew nods off in a theatre Phil intends to interrogate him post-slumber to see if he has come up with such a brilliant conceit. What are the chances? 

The Ladykillers now comes to the Gielgud Theatre with what can only be described by us as a dream cast in a version by Father Ted and The IT Crowd writer Graham Lineham. Expectations were absurdly high.

Fortunately, on the whole, it works, the blackly comic plot and characters are intact and it’s been sensibly adapted and directed (Sean Foley) to add plenty of stage business, charmingly lo-tech effects and general silliness to keep things ticking along nicely.

Peter Capaldi has the almost impossible task of taking on the Alec-Guinness-as-Alastair-Sim role, “Professor” Marcus, who takes a room in Mrs Wilberforce’s King’s Cross home in order to plan a bank heist with his four cronies who pose as a rehearsing string quartet so that she won’t suspect what they’re up to.

Capaldi is more oily than sinister but frequently hilarious and as he contorts his mouth wildly produces understandably spectacular amounts of expectorate (we’d say avoid the front row if day seats weren’t available at a bargain £10). He and Marcia Warren as the old lady are wonderful together. Ms Warren’s profession is delightfully served: she’s perfectly cast, fussing around the house in initial blissful ignorance, apparently slightly dotty but not to be underestimated. And there’s healthily daft support from the gang Stephen Wight, Clive Rowe, Ben Miller* and especially James Fleet as a Major unable to repress his “specialist interest”.

The lopsided house (Michael Taylor) is deliciously realised, packed with plenty of entertaining old style stage effects by Scott Penrose (one earned a round of applause) and the whole thing spins to reveal the necessary exteriors. Don’t look too closely at the door furniture which look as though it came from Franchi’s bargain bin.

Capaldi has a running joke with his lengthy scarf which comes into its own at the end just after the gag has run out of steam (an expression which is rather appropriate, but would be unfair to reveal). There’s also one of the most splendid spot-the-understudy moments we’ve witnessed when Mrs Wilberforce invites her guests round to listen to the quartet. We were certain we guessed Clive Rowe’s stand-in seemingly making a nod to the fact he’s missing this year’s Hackney panto.

So all rather jolly and agreeable then? Pretty much. But if you’re looked at our rating already you may be thinking this reads like a four glass review. But the end result is curiously much less than the sum of its parts. Despite plenty of decent laughs there are times when things feel a bit laboured: the heist for instance is cleverly realised but clunks and needs speeding up (or cutting). And we’re no prudes but he mention of a “penis” stuck out like, er, a sore thumb. There are a few other moments which feel a bit heavy and things never quite fly as, say, One Man, Two Guvnors (yes, we know: almost impossible to live up to that). Preview performance and all that, but his was only Monday night before the official opening on Wednesday.

Perhaps we’d set our hopes unreasonably high, yet we were still able to watch The Ladykillers as a theatrical reimagining quite happily without thinking too much about the brilliant original as there’s still plenty of fun and charm to be had. If nothing else it will expunge memories of the terrible Coen brothers 2004 remake, which can only be a good thing.


* Ben Miller had the misfortune to meet Phil at a party many years ago. Phil took a grape-induced opportunity to congratulate him on his performance in 900 Oneonta. “But I wasn’t in it!” he replied. “Yes you were” Phil insisted, “It was at the Old Vic, it was wonderful.” “Thanks” protested Mr Miller “but I’ve never appeared in the West End”. Phil was very discombobulated but eventually accepted that Miller really ought to be familiar with his own CV. He later realised he was confusing him with Ben Daniels, but is happy to report that Miller wore his long-suffering with aplomb and it is a pleasure to see him finally appearing in the West End. And he was very good.


5 Responses to “Review – The Ladykillers, Gielgud Theatre”

  1. John Baird Says:

    An accurate review, I think. I expected more laughs and I thought some of the jokes a little lame. I actually liked the heist, but yes, the whole play felt like it needs speeding up a little.

  2. Pol Says:

    Ah well – can’t always agree with you – I saw it on the last day in Liverpool and thought it very funny indeed.

  3. Peta Taylor Says:

    It’s not all comedy but the audience barely laughed (to an embarrassing degree). It felt like each of the cast had been allowed to do their own jokes: “Hey! Wouldn’t it be hilarious if I ….” – only it wasn’t because the humour was disparate, incoherent and often deeply predictable. Seriously disappointing apart from the deservedly lauded set & a couple of great performances – from the actors who didn’t think they were being funny.
    I saw our most celebrated physical comedian and the editor of our most celebrated satirical publication – two ends of the comical spectrum – remain largely snigger-free throughout.

  4. Mrs Spratt Says:

    I enjoyed it, even tho I was sitting in the front row.Peeved that I couldn’t purchase TWO tenner tickets & had to pay ‘full’ price for t’other.I’d say it was about 10 mins too long, but there were some marvellous performances and good laughs.You’re right about the copious ammounts of mouth lubricant Mr Capaldi expelled.Fittingly about as many glasses as your review – which is pretty fair.
    Four quid for a programme is daylight robbery and the offenders need bringing before the next hearing.

  5. Thomas Ede Says:

    A last minute decision because of the weather on Saturday, I decided to “pop” in and see The Ladykillers. Quite enjoyed the whole experience and although not up to “One man etc” still very pleasant. The cast were excellent and I could feel the pain every time the swinging blackboard was brought into play. Capaldi was excellent with much face pulling but the real winner was the young cockney lad.

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