A heist movie that trips into farce, The Ladykillers is a patchwork narrative. Originally a 1955 Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness, it flicks between genres, so that what starts out noirish, ends up nutty.
Graham Linehan’s ticklish stage adaptation succeeds because it honours that, spicing up old-fashioned goofing with a contemporary knowingness. It is both homage and histrionics.
What the original’s flitting prevents, however, is the escalating intoxication of truly great farce, which needs to build in pressurised chaos until it whistles like a kettle. The Ladykillers hasn’t
the frenetic overlap for that, but its fitful routines are packed with classic slapstick and fine-tuned asides. The result is a caper that delights, even if it can’t disarm.
Led by Peter Capaldi’s lithe Professor Marcus, a ragbag gang of five old-school crooks plot a robbery while operating out of an old widower’s London residence. To keep the scheme hidden, they pose as a
string quartet (plus conductor), but a cello case that falls open to reveal the loot gives up the game.
With their landlady Mrs Wilberforce insisting that they turn themselves in, they attempt to bump her off; a feat that proves far trickier than any of them initially imagined.
Linehan offers some cracking lines (“You’re making a mockery of teatime.”) and sensibly embraces the stage, even, bravely, playing with the awkwardness of transposition itself. The robbery itself sees
remote-controlled cars crawling the walls and crashing with delicious bathos.
Director Sean Foley, once of the Right Size, throws in textbook trickery: blackboards clatter against foreheads, five squeeze into a cupboard and knives – even a banister – stick out of body parts.
Unlike their musical efforts, the gang make a well-tuned ensemble. Linehan hitches up their individual characteristics for comic effect and the casting is note-perfect. Each actor is on home turf, allowing
relish and freedom in the playing. Capaldi is always best when surrounded by morons and there’s a touch of Peter Sellers in his facial gurning and blithering obsequiousness.
Ben Miller has fun with a Romanian accent and an over-zealous attitude. James Fleet stutters sweetly as only he can, Stephen Wight is a half-cocked cockney and Clive Rowe dopes with aplomb as the former boxer One-Round, who has just enough brainpower to stay conscious.
They have a tidy foil in Marcia Warren’s Mrs Wilberforce, whose genial obliviousness becomes prim disapproval.
Best of all, though, is Michael Taylor’s jaunty and jumbled set, which received two separate ovations of its own on press night.
The Ladykillers might lack the lethalness of crack comedy, but it still proves the Ealing power of laughter.