The Ladykillers on National Tour

Take one defenceless, slightly dotty old lady, and her skew-whiff house beside a railway line, then add five dubious-looking musicians with scads of spondulics in their violin cases, and you've got that joyously black Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. Except this time it's not on celluloid but in a new stage version, directed by Richard Baron, adapted by Giles Croft, and starring TV sitcom stalwarts Tim Brooke-Taylor and Brian Murphy.

The said string quintet is actually a gang of hoodlums, who meet at Mrs Wilberforce's (Dulcie Gray) boarding house so their arcane leader, Professor Marcus (Brooke-Taylor), can orchestrate a mail train heist at nearby King's Cross. They are on the verge of getting away with it, when the sweet and gentle Mrs W twigs their crime and asks them to hand over the swag.

The motley bunch of criminals are now in dangerous territory: they need to murder the old girl if their plan is to succeed. Thankfully, though, events conspire to see that our heroine comes out on top by the end of the play.

Although the 1955 film captured an almost surreal, bombed-out postwar landscape, designer Ken Harrison has opted to centre the action on the lop-sided Victorian house. While this is all very charming, with its wonky matchboarding, peeling anaglypta, and Mark Pritchard's atmospheric lighting, it is barely big enough to contain the numerous scenes and the classic set-piece ending.

Director Baron has obviously aimed at imitation here, rather than re-invention. Most of the cast take their inspiration from their film counterparts, but add little of their own character to the roles. Ms Gray is adequate as the old lady, but lacks the appeal of Katie Johnson, whose frailty belied a steely determination. Brooke-Taylor has neither the prominent dentition of Alec Guiness, nor the menace. While ex-George and Mildred star Murphy is surprisingly limp as The Major. However, Martin Herdman as the hood with a heart, One-Round gives a diverting performance, especially when holding his cello as if it were a guitar.

Maybe hardcore fans will enjoy this adaptation of The Ladykillers. To my mind, though, it functions mainly as a souvenir of the brilliant screen version, rather than as a great play in its own right.

Richard Forrest