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Queues On the Avenue

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The New Year has kicked off with all the appearance of being a box office bonanza in the West End. It is virtually impossible to buy tickets for One Man, Two Guvnors at the Adelphi. And queues for returns are blocking the pavement along Shaftesbury Avenue outside the Apollo for the last few days of Jerusalem.

In fact, walking up the Avenue from Piccadilly Circus last night en route to The Ladykillers at the Gielgud, I thought at first that the crowds consisted of Michael Jackson fans worshipping at the shrine that the Lyric has become these days.

And then, from the other direction, a huge mob suddenly pressed forward into the Gielgud itself for the spring-heeled new stage version of the great Ealing comedy.

I realise it's still the holiday season, but maybe we're entering a new era of post-Modernist, slightly self-conscious popular comedy in the West End, building on the audience that shows like The 39 Steps and, to a lesser extent, Potted Panto are bringing to town.

Nicholas Hytner is on record as having noted, with regard to his hit production of One Man, Two Guvnors, that there was suprisingly little on offer in the West End by way of farce or even comedy. We're okay for musicals and juke box compilation shows, and the odd "straight theatre" success such as Jerusalem and Three Days in May disguise the fact that new plays are thin on the ground in the commercial sector.

But we love to laugh, especially in hard times, perhaps, and this is why The Ladykillers, and the Noises Off revival at the Old Vic, have been so joyfully received by audiences, some of whom, presumably, have been unable to get into One Man, Two Guvnors.

The Ladykillers has been rightly acclaimed as both a skilful hommage to the movie and a theatrical venture of some wit and comic substance in its own right. Michael Taylor's set, for a start, is amazing, a great pile of railway architecture, Kings Cross rooftops and genteel suburban interiors leaning dangerously out of kilter.

The performances are oddly angular to match, not least that of Peter Capaldi in the Alec Guinness role of the sinister gang leader whose eccentricity is a form of madness and whose music-making with his accomplices a suprisingly brilliant form of improvisation.

It's a glorious highlight in Sean Foley's production when the concert-going lady friends of Marcia Warren's fastidious Mrs Wilberforce crowd into the sitting room for a sip of tea and a taste of Boccherini to find Clive Rowe and co scraping out an abrasive avant garde piece that still convinces them they are hearing something worthwhile.

This trick is ingeniously played either side of the interval, when the buzz in the stalls and the bars was nothing but delighted. I also got a strong impression that the audience included quite a few film buffs, or devotees of Ealing comedies, who were measuring the play against their own favourite moments on celluloid.

But as there's no sensible comparison to be made between Stephen Wight's delightfully gormless Harry and the Peter Sellers template, or between James Fleet's deftly distracted Major Courtney and Cecil Parker's olde worlde original, these comparisons can only be made for fun, not critical kudos, and the audience responded exactly in that way.

This was my first trip to the theatre since The Comedy of Errors at the National, and a very revivifying and heartening experience it was, too. December, alas, was a panto-free zone for me this year, but I look forward to catching up with Noises Off very soon.


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