A Show to Kill for

Cast of 'The Ladykillers'

The Ladykillers – Gielgud Theatre

The Ladykillers has already been nominated for five Olivier Awards – and with very good reason: neatly plotted, craftily acted and superbly comic, the play is unquestionably one of the quirkiest shows in the West End.

Released in 1955, the original Ladykillers was that most British of film types, an Ealing Comedy – although rather unusually written by an American, William Rose – but Graham Lineham’s theatre script, directed by Sean Foley, transforms the film into a slapstick treat, packed with the most inventive one liners and richly deserves its Olivier nominations both for Best New Show and for Best Director.

The treats start long before the show begins, of course. It’s marked by a real attention to detail: the production’s website is one of the most imaginative I’ve seen in a while (try clicking on the names of characters, for example) and sets the scene for an evening of utterly enjoyable lunacy. I loved the opening projections on to the curtains, resonant of a 1950s cinema, whilst Ben and Max Ringham’s Olivier nominated sound design had just the right level of hyperbole.

But to the play: in a nutshell, The Ladykillers tells the initially gentle but increasingly macabre, darkly comic story of Mrs Wilberforce, a lonely, elderly woman who lives in fear of crime, and of Professor Marcus and his criminal gang, in reality a bunch of half-wits. Mrs Wilberforce is a commensurate worrier and waster of police time but is charmed by her new lodger Professor Marcus, who is allegedly using her home for music rehearsals.

A first rate cast is headed by Peter Capaldi, best known for his role in Channel Four’s The Thick of It. Capaldi turns Professor Marcus into a brilliantly deranged leader, and possessor of the most unsettling of European accents. Indeed, Capaldi’s performance must be for its sheer verve, boundless energy and superb sense of timing, one of the strongest performances in the West End this year. And none of his gang disappoint either: I particularly enjoyed Clive Rowe’s hilarious portrayal of ‘One Round’ and James Fleet (Hugo in The Vicar of Dibley) as the privately cross-dressing Major Courtney. Ben Miller plays Romanian Louis Harvey as the perfect East End thug and Stephen Wight – winner of the Evening Standard’s Best Newcomer Award in 2007 for Dealer’s Choice – makes black marketeer Harry Robinson into one of the funniest mentally deranged, pill popping hoodlums. Mrs Wilberforce is played by Marcia Warren, rightly nominated for an Olivier as Best Actress, who captures with real warmth the gentle old soul who probably knows far more than we ever imagine.

Michael Taylor’s inventive design has received yet another Olivier nomination. It evokes perfectly the faded glory of Mrs Wilberforce’s rickety and idiosyncratic home, bomb damaged and sandwiched beside a railway line, so close in fact that every time a train passes, the house quite literally shakes. Clever use of a revolve, inventive and unexpected workings of the set and some quite unpredictable chase scenes (no spoilers here) add to the play’s wonderfully nostalgic (but never sickly) feel. Watch out for birds and cars.

Some experience of the film version (worth watching for Alec Guinness as Professor Marcus alone) undoubtedly adds another layer to one’s enjoyment, but this is an evening of utterly ridiculous fun. If you have enjoyed the version of The Thirty Nine Steps playing at the Criterion Theatre, you will have some idea of what to expect.

Above all, catch this while you can – you have two weeks left to see it at the Gielgud with the current cast. Despair not, however: the news is a six month tour of the UK is being planned already.