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

BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit