If there’s one thing that London theatre does well, it’s stage sets. As the curtain rises on The Ladykillers, you’re presented with a fantastic feat of imagination and engineering, Mrs Wilberforce’s rickety, lop-sided old boarding house (suffering from subsidence) which stands precariously close to King’s Cross Railway Station and rattles with every passing train. A sprawling maze of sloping landings and twisted staircases which revolve to reveal locations as the story dictates – the ticket price is worth it for the set alone.
Marcia Warren makes the most of playing it straight in this black comedy as sweet little old Mrs Wilberforce – coming to lodge in the one room which is still structurally sound are a group of bank robbers masquerading as a string quintet; At the helm is Professor Marcus, played with great aplomb by Peter Capaldi, best known for his role as Malcolm Tucker in the political satire The Thick of It and the movie spin-off In The Loop. Capaldi is wonderfully creepy as the erudite Professor with a touch of Nosferatu to his voice and gestures. His accomplices include the stiff upper-lipped Major Courtney (James Fleet), Cockney lad Harry (Stephen Wight), Brawn-over-brains One-Round (Clive Rowe) and Romanian thug Louis (Ben Miller) each with their own role in a multi-million pound heist.
Everything goes more or less to plan, right up until Mrs Wilberforce discovers the money and demands that they hand themselves into the police, prompting possibly the best line in the play from Professor Marcus: “is it a greater crime to rob a bank, or to found one?” But Mrs Wilberforce is resolute and it seems that their only option is to bump her off – but none of them wants to be the one to do it. Who would think that one sweet little old lady could cause so much trouble? As the night progresses and with the employment of some fantastic illusions, one by one, each man finds himself meeting a sticky end and ‘on a train to Newcastle’.
The script by Irish sitcom writer Graham Linehan bears a passing resemblance to the 1955 movie from the Ealing Studios, but it is written more with the stage in mind – some scenes have been altered to take place in the house and Linehan made a wise decision in making Major Gordon the parrot an offstage sound effect. But still there are many nods to the original movie as each crook in turn appears as a Hitchcock-esque silhouette at the front door complete with sinister soundtrack. The play is none the worse for its adaptation, but anyone hoping for an exact replica of the movie would be better off at home with the DVD.
The Ladykillers is at The Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 6AR and is currently booking until Saturday April 14, 2012
Contains some slapstick violence – the show is suitable for all ages, but is unlikely to appeal to children under the age of 10.