I first saw this show just under 2 years ago in December 2011 when it made its way down from the Liverpool Playhouse and started creating a stir at the Gielgud Theatre. On a first viewing, I was pretty convinced that it was a winner and destined to enjoy quite a long and successful run in the West End. It's nice to have one's predictions proved right, and for the show to have an additional run affording another opportunity to catch it for those who missed it the first time round.
The show is based on the well-known and much-loved 1955 film of the same title – one of the famous Ealing Comedies. It would have been hard for that not to make the grade with the likes of Peter Sellars, Herbert Lom and Alec Guinness among the cast. And such is the film's following that some people will probably baulk at the concept of bringing a cherished film to the stage. However, there is enough in this version for it to be judged on its own merits and not to be compared harshly with its acclaimed celluloid predecessor.
The title is intentionally ambiguous, but it actually refers to a group of criminals led by the brilliant Professor Marcus, now played by John Gordon Sinclair. Marcus has a plan to rob a train at Kings Cross station and decides to take up residence in a nearby house while he rehearses his team and hones his plans. The house belongs to an endearing senior citizen, a widow, called Mrs Wilberforce who lives alone apart from her deformed parrot which has a degenerative disease. As cover for their criminal activities, the gang pretend to be musicians who wish to use Mrs Wilberforce's spare room to rehearse their musical pieces. As you might imagine, Professor Marcus's criminal conspiracy does not go quite according to plan.
I don't know how much input writer Graham Linehan or director Sean Foley had in terms of the overall functionality of the design or indeed with the illusions, tricks and the many gadgets which are employed to great effect. Whoever came up with the ideas, Michael Taylor's set is immensely impressive in terms of its ingenuity and complexity, but it is also the source of much of the fun in the show, getting laughs right from the start and throughout. In fact, one could describe it (with more than a small measure of justification) as being the star of the show. Mrs Wilberforce's rickety home is all odd angles and misaligned edges, with doors and frames leaning because of the underlying subsidence – an architect's or carpenter’s worst nightmare, I would think. The entire set rotates during the show to provide exterior and interior locations, and there are numerous cleverly-devised tricks built-into the house, including the means to describe the actual robbery.
A new cast includes John Gordon Sinclair who has the unenviable task of dealing with the sweetly innocent Mrs Wilberforce (Angela Thorne) and managing his disparate band of thieves. Simon Day is the Major who likes nothing better than slipping into women's dresses; Ralf Little is the pill-popping and light-fingered Harry who has to endure a running gag with a blackboard; Chris McCalphy is the ex-boxer known affectionately as 'one-round'; and Con O'Neill is the unsavoury and bad-tempered Louis who has more than a little trouble with idioms. The roll is completed with a gaggle of Mrs Wilberforce's female friends – some of whom seem suspiciously like men in drag!
I didn't laugh quite so much this time round as I did on my first visit, but I wouldn't read too much in to that – familiarity doesn't often go hand-in-hand with objectivity when one is considering humour. The jokes are sometimes predictable, and there are running gags which you see coming all too clearly – but they are nonetheless irresistible. There is one very clever and witty line in Graham Linehan's script which should really be in the joke hall of fame – I won't spoil it by quoting it, but it is about art and the middle class. It's worth a visit for that gag alone, but there's bags more to enjoy in an ingeniously engaging and entertaining show.
"The great thing about the film is that it is at times genuinely chilling as well as hilarious, and the one loss in Sean Foley’s hugely enjoyable stage production, which has just begun a second run in the West End following a national tour, is that it never quite matches the creepiness of the original. I would venture to suggest, however, that it is even funnier than the movie."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"It's all perfectly amiable, but the production needs more spit and polish if it is to recapture its original zest."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"To see the show a second time is to marvel anew at the inspired way Linehan takes the ingenious premise of William Rose's original screenplay and converts it into an opportunity for uproarious slapstick stage farce, fizzing with entirely fresh gags."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Entertained for a couple of hours."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard