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