As even the Cohen brothers discovered, adapting masterful Ealing comedy The Ladykillers for a modern audience is no easy task. It’s just one of the factors that make this extraordinary stage version of the beloved 1955 film such a brilliant triumph, with writer Graham Linehan’s wonderfully funny script surely becoming the benchmark for any future period re-workings.
Like all good sitcoms, from Fawlty Towers to Steptoe and Son and Linehan’s own Father Ted, the comedy in The LadyKillers comes from the characters being trapped in a situation they cannot escape from, in this case sweet Mrs Wilberforce’s house. And what characters they are.
Peter Capaldi is simply fantastic in the role of Professor Marcus. Less oily than Alec Guiness’s turn in the original, Capaldi instead infuses Marcus with the vein popping intensity of The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker, in doing so giving the criminal mastermind a disturbing psychotic edge. The way in which he asks for “just a suspicion” of sugar with his tea, is just one of the many delightful lines, this excellent actor wraps his voice around.
Only Four Weddings actor, James Fleet falls slightly flat as the debauched Major, with his understated performance never quite grasping the true comedy potential of the cross-dressing conman.
In his programme notes, Linehan writes how influenced he was by Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and there is no-doubt that the intensity, paranoia and yes, violence of that film is present, as the crooks’ heist and escape begin to unravel in increasingly gory fashion.
With the action confined to Mrs Wilberforce’s house and in one memorable scene, its roof, the claustrophobia the villains feel is ratcheted up a notch, no more so than when they attempt to all hide in a cupboard, in a scene which is pure slapstick at its best.
This combination of hilarious comedy and menacing malevolence is best exemplified by the loveable dope One Round’s exhausting death scene which takes in high camp, opera singing and a dagger in the head. It’s a great moment from Clive Rowe.
Finally, more than a word of credit has to go Michael Taylor’s unbelievable stage set, described by Linehan as the “seventh cast member”. Like Salvador Dali let loose in a Cath Kidston store, Mrs Wilberforce’s house seems to literally come alive in front of you, as walls shake, pictures drop and chairs have a life of their own. The scene were the action of the heist is depicted on the outside bricks of the mansion using toy cars was one of the most original and amusing periods of action I have ever seen on a Liverpool theatre stage.
This was a play so good that even the encore was hilarious and the set got a standing ovation.
A complete triumph then, and a suitably wonderful way to celebrate 100 years of Liverpool’s Playhouse Theatre.
Ladykillers, to 19 November
Playhouse, Williamson Square
Pics: Manuel Harlan