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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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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