You don’t need me to tell you that The Ladykillers is a classic Ealing comedy movie dating back to 1955 (ignore the highly inferior 2004 Hollywood remake) and with a great ensemble cast orchestrated by Alec Guinness and including Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers and the indomitable Katy Johnson. Now it’s back, on stage and on tour, courtesy of Graham Linehan, he of The Show What I Wrote, Father Ted and the IT Crowd fame.
In this adaptation, The Ladykillers employs exactly the same plot but the script has been tarted up and up-sauced to appeal to a modern audience, nearly 60 years on. The spiv, for example, is now into drugs, some of which induce him to go on a cleaning spree; the Major is now into cross-dressing. Even some of the language is decidedly closer to the knuckle for family entertainment, but then the definition of “family entertainment” has changed considerably, along with social mores.
The core is unchanged, though. As before, little old lady Mrs Wilberforce lives in a rickety old house at the end of a cul-de-sac overlooking the rail lines at Kings Cross. Professor Marcus rents a room and arranges for his band of music lovers, aka criminal gang, to practice their playing, much to the delight of Mrs W.
They arrange their heist with a neat trick whereby said old lady arranges for her friendly neighbourhood policeman to bring the case with the money to the house, but when she spots cash in a cello case the truth soon outs. Thereafter things become darker, as the band bicker on who should kill Mrs W, but ultimately it is their own internal jealousies and money lust that result in their succeeding in killing themselves and leaving Mrs Wilberforce with the money. As such, this is a modern retelling of The Pardoner’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales, the moral of which is of course that money is the root of all evil.
In this telling, the most striking and successful aspect of the production is a spectacular set, incorporating all manner of strange angles, swivelling window bays to bring into play the window ledge beyond, and especially the use of toy cars going up the front of the house to play out the actual heist scene. This is quite a brilliant and inventive use of the theatrical format to represent a scene played out with real cars on real streets for the original movie. Much easier to do in reverse by taking a theatrical representation and opening it out, so credit to the production designers for finding such an inventive way to depict a scene that would not work in the theatre.
As for the cast, they play with some gusto, though for the most part I can’t tell you who they are with the honourable exception of Michele Dotrice, who makes a splendid Mrs Wilberforce. We did not buy a programme, but in any case there were understudies playing some roles, so I gather. Looking on the play’s website is no help, since no cast is listed, and indeed it appears to have been played by several casts in its relatively short national run. A pity, but the gang, and indeed the tribe of little old ladies, do make a decent fist out of playing cartoonish characters.
So lots of good effort here and a fine attempt to recreate the spirit of Ealing for the 2010s. If I have a problem it’s with the paucity of imagination that demands old movies are recreated for the stage, in the certain knowledge that it will put bums on seats. The movie of The Ladykillers is a total delight, but you do wonder what value there is in putting it on, even if some of the jokes added are new. Do we find new ways to find comedy of hope that old formats will wring laughs for a fresh generation? Most attending The Lowry’s Lyric Theatre for this show seemed to be old enough to have seen the movie first time around, so it’s like reliving your childhood.
I wish there was greater courage among theatrical entrepreneurs and audiences alike, but this attempt at reliving nostalgia left me with a slightly sad feeling. But in the final analysis my mother was well chuffed, so I can’t complain.