Theatre review: The Ladykillers

Transposed from Ealing to Shaftesbury Avenue, this tale of a heist gone wrong is a joy.

The original story for the 1955 film The Ladykillers came to scriptwriter Bill Rose in a dream (as, apparently, did the idea for Speed 2: Cruise Controlto its creator, so it goes to show you should always keep a bedside pen handy). Rose's gilt-edged reverie is now transposed with some panache from Ealing to Shaftesbury Avenue in a new production at the Gielgud. On the way, its caricatures gain some hinterland, and the play gains plenty of slapstick and sight gags.

This heist-gone-wrong takes a leaf from noir-to-farce The 39 Steps down the road at the Criterion theatre. Music by Ben and Max Ringham is a joyous, Hitchcockian score. Director Sean Foley treats the story of the old lady who inadvertently hosts the members of a criminal gang - thinking they are a string quintet - like the Marx brothers might have treated a Tarantino plot.

It's a show that both revels in British stereotypes (the mustachioed major), and reveals unexpected back-stories to those stereotypes (he likes wearing women's clothing). The starry cast list reads like a who's who of British comedy. Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It) takes on the Alec Guinness role of criminal mastermind Professor Marcus. With a face like a blade, he seems to act out of one side of it - a visual tipoff about the conman's two-faced art. His natural Scots is toffed up to a strained and manic gentility. James Fleet (Vicar of Dibley) plays the shifty, twitchy major who has an eye for ladies' tailoring ("I fell against the dress, whilst singing"); Ben Miller, as in Armstrong and Miller, an uneasy Romanian gangster.

Stephen Wight, excellent as a pill-popping spiv, and Clive Rowe, playing simple-minded man-mountain "One-Round" complete the gang. Marcia Warren as Mrs Wilberforce, the "wraith in a pinny," glides serenely through the exaggerated antics of these house guests, the still small point of decency in this topsy-turvy little Britain. She may look like a favourite aunt, but the rising body count makes her an unlikely but invincible Angel of Death to the criminal goons in her quirky Kings Cross house.

Michael Taylor's set depicting this idiosyncratic gaff is an ingenious marvel of higgledy-piggledy planes, with bannisters that crazily cascade, and fixtures and fittings at riotous angles. It looks as though it's been thrown together from a great height. And the props have an animated, recalcitrant life all of their own. Writer Graham Linehan (whose credits include Father Ted) uses the original film as departure point rather than blueprint. He plants some deft meta-touches. The Professor's line "being fooled by art is one of the primary pleasures afforded the middle class" gets a roar of approval from the stalls. The next, delicious, scene, in which the crooks are forced to perform their instruments, is all Linehan's own.

If anything the world of the play is murkier and more corrupt still than the film. Everyone is on the take and covering their tracks. It's not so much that the police don't believe Mrs W at the end, but that to act on her testimony would mean huge embarrassment for the Force (sound familiar?). Echoing the thieves precisely, PC Plod talks of the missing money being "less than a farthing on everyone's premiums."

This is a show that annexes our goodwill through the accumulation of details. The first time the Prof's scarf is trodden on is not funny; the sixth time definitely is. The scarf's undoing finally proves the Professor's own. There's some beautiful and surreal ensemble playing: I loved the "loose society of elderly women" who are treated to the gang's tea-time strings recital. All oohs and aahs, and the sounds of their gloved hands clapping like the beats of tiny bird wings. There has surely never been a better use of understudies' talents.

It's not uniformly hilarious: the parrot jokes get a little old, and the heist, portrayed through the medium of Scalextric is a little baffling. But hold that thought: the feel of the piece is just as though small boys have been let loose on a lovely new train set. Their pleasure is catching.

"The Ladykillers" is at the Gielgud Theatre, London W1 until 14 April

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge