Friday, December 09, 2011

The Ladykillers at the Gielgud Theatre

Though Graham Linehan’s stage adaptation of this classic 1955 Ealing comedy is superficially appealing on a number of levels, taken as a whole it doesn't quite satisfy.

Peter Capaldi plays the reptilian Professor Marcus – first revealed to the audience in silhouette – the head of a criminal gang who hides out in the Kings Cross house of kindly Mrs Wilberforce (Marcia Warren) under the pretence of being members of a string quintet.  

It's hard to fault the cast, but while the film celebrates the triumph of something fundamentally English in a murky post-war world, Linehan seems far more interested in mining the story for its comic potential. As a result the production is stuffed with recurring gags and physical comedy, but there's something very broad about the way the whole thing is pitched and it only really hits its stride in the second half, when the robbery has been committed and the silliness gives way to something more sinister. As tension mounts between the gang members and they begin to turn against one another, Sean Foley’s production takes on the dark air of a fairy tale. There's also more than a trace of the contemporary heist movie to proceedings: Reservoir Dogs is cited as an inspiration and there’s even, I believe, a visual reference to The Taking of Pelham 123. 

Linehan deviates from the film in some entertaining ways; a sequence in which the gang are forced to perform for Mrs Wilberforce’s elderly friends and have to try and pass their ineptitude off as musical experimentation is particularly amusing. But the piece never sustains this level of invention and at points comes close to pantomime.  

Michael Taylor’s gloriously skewed, expressionistic set creates a sense of physical and moral subsidence which the production never fully capitalises on but the cast are clearly enjoying themselves which goes some way to compensate for the occasional sags in pacing and the overlabouring of some of the jokes. Warren is deliciously dithery as Mrs Wilberforce, fragile yet far more formidable than the men around her will credit, and Capaldi clearly relishes his villainous role, stalking the stage like a Lotte Reiniger shadow puppet, revelling in each hike of an eyebrow and each long-legged stride. Clive Rowe, James Fleet, Ben Miller and Stephen Wight are also on good form as, respectively, the slow-witted but well-meaning One Round; the nervy Major with a fondness for women’s formal wear; the volatile Romanian gangster with a near pathological dislike of old ladies; and the amphetamine-driven Harry, who comes across like a more docile version of Brighton Rock’s Pinkie Brown with a penchant for housework.

Reviewed for Theatermania