In the summer of 1954, while living in Hampstead, screenwriter Bill Rose had a dream about five criminals sharing a house with a little old lady. This stage adaptation of 1955 Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, the film it inspired – now at the Gielgud Theatre following a successful stint in Liverpool – has an appropriately surreal, beautifully realised set, and plenty of laughs. Crucially, though, director Sean Foley’s production lacks the stylistic coherence and neat, dark edges of the play’s celluloid inspiration.
We meet the kindly but eccentric Mrs Wilberforce (Marcia Warren) having cried Nazis or alien space invaders once too often to an exasperated Constable Macdonald. Unfortunately, her ability to see conspiracies everywhere in post-war England fails her when Professor Marcus (Peter Capaldi) comes to inquire about her spare room. Because the professor and his rag-tag associates are not a string quintet rehearsing for a concert, as he tells her, but a bunch of con-artists orchestrating a heist. However, they soon learn that a well-meaning landlady can upset the best-laid plans.
The production brims with satisfyingly clever references, not just to the heightened Britishness of the Ealing Comedies but to filmmaking in general during the first half of the twentieth century. From the swelling score to Professor Marcus’s Peter Lorre-like initial appearance as a menacing shadow at Mrs Wilberforce’s door, Foley evokes conventions and clichés with fond nostalgia rather than in outright parody.
Designer Michael Taylor’s set is perhaps the greatest achievement, revolving from a picture-book cottage exterior to reveal a crazy cross-section of odd-angled rooms, slanted floors and a roof reduced to spindly rafters as it nears the top of the stage. Replete with a covered birdcage, dusty armchairs and a clutter of tea cups, this brilliantly observed, off-kilter space represents a celluloid vision of English life captured by multiple camera lenses and refracted through time.
It’s a shame, then, that this layering of cinematically pitch-perfect detail doesn’t amount to the all-encompassing experience that it could be. Foley directs Graham Linehan’s gag-heavy script broadly, with the cast aiming punch-lines as much at the audience as each other. As a result, the characters don’t always seem to share the same space; existing on the outskirts of the world on stage rather than as part of it.
This lack of meshing between the production’s different elements means that the script, although funny, doesn’t sting when it really needs to; after all, this is a story in which a succession of characters get bumped off after the interval. However, with the welcome exception of an atmospheric and ultimately fatal story-telling sequence in a bedroom, Foley never fully explores this black comedy’s colder, darker recesses.
But even if it doesn’t live up to its potential, the show barrels along at a rollicking pace. Peter Capaldi brings a malevolent energy to Professor Marcus, organising the heist with the same self-regarding glee that he conducts an impromptu concert in the second act. Meanwhile, an eye-bulging Ben Miller bristles with cartoon aggression as old lady-hating Rumanian thug Louis Harvey and a stuttering James Fleet is hilarious as furtive cross-dresser Major Courtney. Stephen Wight and Clive Rowe also raise a laugh as pill-popping, neat-freak teddy boy Harry Robinson and bemused ex-boxer One-Round.
And at the heart of everything is Marcia Warren, who imbues the aged Mrs Wilberforce with a childlike dignity and determination born of a quintessentially English faith in routine and the proper order of things. Ultimately, she survives (and prospers) because she refuses to change; an outcome that lends an almost patriotic air to the play’s mockery of the chocolate-box world it invokes.