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by Graham Linehan
FROM THE MOTION PICTURE SCREENPLAY BY WILLIAM ROSE BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT WITH STUDIOCANAL
Directed by DAVID PILE
Designed by COLIN PILE
IF the 1950s was a golden age for British cinema, one of the most brilliant jewels in that crown of gold was the Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers. Graham Linehan’s adaptation of the film into a stage play works so well because he has preserved the mainspring of the comedy: despite their profession, the villains are really rather likeable, and it is their amiability that makes them so bad at what they do that their scheme is easily, if unintentionally, thwarted by the little old lady who rents them the room in which they plan their heist.
When staging a production based on a classic, the first thing the actors have to decide is how far to imitate the creators of their roles and how far to find something new in their characters. Wisely, Richard Neal as the gang’s leader, Professor Marcus, does not try to reproduce Alec Guinness’s air of stooped creepiness. Rather, he is an upright, ‘hail fellow, well met’ Scot, and it is a tribute to the performance that one realises only gradually that he is walking a thin line between being a genius and being stark staring bonkers. In many ways he holds the play together, and Richard Neal plays him with impressive authority. As little old Mrs Wilberforce, Sheila Dove is a stronger character than in the film, but this is an unselfish performance that allows the bungling villains to play off her. There is a brief, gushing cameo from Trish Marsden as one of Mrs Wilberforce’s guests.
Of the members of Marcus’s gang, Sam Moulton is excellent as teddy boy Harry Robinson; his lurid green suede shoes would be worth the price of admission alone, but he is also particularly good at picking up the pace of the action and at listening intelligently to the other actors. Simon Jackson plays Major Courtney, a ‘temporary gentleman’ with an unhealthy interest in women’s clothes, with the touch of comic nervousness that is appropriate for a mountebank who suspects that he may be rumbled at any moment. John Sivewright as Louis Harvey, always threatening violence, perhaps comes closest to a pastiche of the original performance, but it is no bad model to follow: Herbert Lom with a rat face instead of those rather chubby cheeks of the ‘Pink Panther’ films. And punch-drunk ‘One-Round’ (Tony Parkinson) sums them all up, his geniality being as much of a liability as his lack of brain-power.
It is a play where the technical crew deserve as much attention as those on stage, because the action takes place almost equally in Mrs Wilberforce’s living room and in the bedroom that she has let to Marcus and his chums. In the absence of a revolve, a very ingenious set has been constructed which incorporates not only those two rooms but a staircase and the sloping roof outside the bedroom window. It does its job, but it creates the problem for director David Pile – not always solved completely satisfactorily – that at any one time there can be five or six actors in a space too small for comfort.
Music is well used both as background and during scene changes, including the Dick Barton and the Paul Temple themes. The latter, ‘Coronation Scot’, is especially appropriate as the action takes place next to Kings Cross station. The cleverest technical effect I have seen in a long time is the illusion, created by lights, steam and sound, of a train passing across the orchestra pit. The lighting is credited to Kieran Henshaw-Ray and if this is his inspiration, it is one of which he can be very proud.
John Newth, Scene One
What a clever, multi-level set of a ramshackle property adjacent to Kings Cross Station in London to create the right atmosphere for The Ladykillers, which tells the story of the sweet but fanciful old lady and her shady lodgers during a week in 1956. With the sounds – and steam – of trains travelling by, the scene is perfectly set for this stage adaptation of the classic Ealing film of the 1950s.
Professor Marcus is the brains behind a motley gang of criminal misfits who set out to rob a security van and, as the canny Scottish confidence trickster, Richard Neal is well cast. He is totally believable in the part, as is Simon Jackson (Major Courtney) who brings out the feminine side of his character with subtle humour. An ideal role for Sam Moulton as the pill-popping spiv Harry Robinson and Tony Parkinson captures the character of muscular but not bright One-Round with consummate skill. Seeing him play the cello is one of the highlights of the comedy and so is his dramatic demise as the thieves fall out. Completing the gang as Romanian thug Louis Harvey is John Sivewright in fine form while Alan Dester - the gullible Police Sergeant Macdonald – is exactly right for the cameo role.
The “blue rinse brigade” who are Mrs Wilberforce’s guests are well played by six elegant women who wear sashes proclaiming them as Loose Ladies – presumably an early version of Loose Women? What can be said of Mrs Wilberforce herself? A truly splendid interpretation of the gentle and eccentric widow by experienced player Sheila Dove, even her fluttering walk is right for the part. She never puts a dainty foot wrong despite being on stage for most of the play and her diction and demeanour are a joy. Unseen but vocal, her parrot General Gordon complements the character.
Director David Pile does a good job with his talented cast although the action in Act 2 seems to lose pace a little; not so the trains which tear past the house regularly at great speed. Every credit to Colin Pile for sound effects (and the stunning set) and to Kieran Henshaw-Ray for first-class lighting. Another splendid production by Wimborne Drama Productions who always give their audiences good entertainment.
Try to catch The Ladykillers before they make a getaway on Saturday evening, to miss them would be criminal.
Pat Scott, Stour and Avon Magazine
Photographs: Tony Feltham
Wimborne Drama Productions