Based on the 1955 film of the same title, this new stage version of 'The Ladykillers' may not boast actors quite as famous as the likes of Peter Sellers or Alec Guinness as the original did, but it is an unqualified success in every respect. Originating at the Liverpool Playhouse, the play has made a well-deserved move to the West End and looks set to enjoy a very healthy run.
The action is set in the home of Mrs Louisa Wilberforce who lives in her house close by King Cross station. The location is important because an odd assortment of crooks masterminded by Professor Marcus intend robbing a train at the station. Marcus wants to rent one of Mrs Wilberforce's rooms and tells her he and some friends are amateur musicians who will be practising in the room, whereas in reality they are planning the heist. The crooks even manage to con Mrs Wilberforce into moving the stolen cash to her home after the robbery, a task she unwittingly agrees to perform. But once the stolen money is back at her comfy, but ill-aligned home, things start to go awry for the Professor and his cronies.
The play is not simply a recreation of the film. What the writer, Graham Linehan and director, Sean Foley, have done is to take the essentials of the original and then apply their own interpretation to that framework. The plot and characters are the same, and the running gag where Mrs Wilberforce stands on Professor Marcus's scarf remain. But there are other running jokes too which, of course, become predictable as the play moves on, but are nonetheless wryly amusing.
Michael Taylor's captivating and ingenious rotating set has walls at odd angles owing to 'subsidence', and doubles-up as a railway tunnel as well as the interior and exterior of the Wilberforce home. The robbery is described with the aid of small model cars which race along the stage and then up the back of the set, with the mail train containing the loot travelling over the roof. And the tricks do not stop there. As the crooks fight among themselves, Louis throws a knife which embeds itself in the centre of 'One-round's' head.
A flawless cast manage to compete on equal terms both with the very fine set and excellent illusions. Marcia Warren is the charming, slightly dotty Mrs Wilberforce who makes endless cups of tea and dotes on her hideous parrot, General Gordon. Peter Capaldi is Professor Marcus, the gang leader who is more mad scientist than gangland thug. Clive Rowe demonstrates that he can not only convince as an ex-boxer, but that he also possesses a remarkably impressive singing voice. James Fleet is the Major who loves nothing better than dressing-up in women's clothes, and Stephen Wight is the pill-popping Harry who is the unfortunate victim of a running gag with a backboard which the gang use to develop their plan. The main cast are supported by a flock of Mrs Wilberforce's female friends, some of whom look suspiciously like men dressed in drag. Well, it is panto season after all.
Reviving a successful film – however old it may be – is not without controversy. And there are times when stage revivals in particular do not do justice to the original. That is thankfully not the case here because the creative team have kept the best of the famous Ealing Comedy and added to it enormously by stamping their own impression on it with imagination and flair. The result really is five-star fun.
"The show works and, at its considerable best, works triumphantly. Just the sight of the crooked, dottily eccentric house occupied by the sweet and unsuspecting Mrs Wilberforce raises a smile."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"A very different animal from the 1955 movie; and, while it may lack the Ealing touch, it works very well as a slapstick farce.."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Affectionate yet brightly original adaptation of a classic Ealing comedy dating from 1955."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"This inspired adaptation that converts the proceedings into a hilarious send-up of loony, slapstick farce."
Paul Taylor for The Independent