It would be hard to find a theatrical concept more Londony than ‘The Ladykillers’, a ‘classic’ Ealing Comedy from the fifties following a gang of bungling bank robbers disguised as a string quintet to hide out in the home of sweetly dotty Mrs Wilberforce, whose windows conveniently face the train tracks at Kings Cross via which they intend to escape with the loot.
Surely all you have to do is order in a cracking composite set from Michael Taylor, hire the wonderful Marcia Warren who has been giving good ‘old lady’ for years and populate the gang with some loveable ‘him off the telly’s – including the half of Armstrong and Miller who isn’t the droll one in the car insurance adverts – and Bob is indubitably your aunt’s husband.
So it’s Londony, but is it Londonist?
Anchoring the action in a single set – even if it does twirl, shake its dangly bits and do the splits more convincingly than Ivy Paige in a midnight show at Madame Jojo's – loses the affectionate nostalgia the Alexander Mackendrick film delivers in its depiction of mid-century London street life, although the bank robbery choreographed by Scalextric is ingenious if a bit unclear.
What’s left is a character-driven farce in which each of the hoods gets a backstory not derived from the film, which is when Graham Linehan’s script draws equally on The League of Gentlemen and The League of Gentlemen, borrowing from both the immaculate heist movie and the TV sketch show for stock British characters and moments of bizarre transvestism.
The print critics fell over themselves to be nice about the show, generally rating it four stars, and few could scrape up even a mildly dissenting comment. It also beguiled political comedian Mark Thomas on BBC2's Review Show as he only tried half-heartedly to convince Martha Kearney that it was a thinly disguised piece of Tory propaganda designed to maintain the old social order.
So it’s great to welcome to the West End a commercial hit which isn’t another jukebox musical – you really can count on the fingers of one hand the number of comedies which expect to sell out on a Saturday night: Alongside Jerusalem, One Man Two Guvnors – and shortly to be joined by Noises Off at the Old Vic – The Ladykillers is among the best shows in London without a band.
The Ladykillers continues at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, Mon-Sat at 7.45pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 3pm, booking until 14 April 2012. Tickets £25 (restricted view), most good stalls/circle £55, except 'premium seats' at £95 plus booking fee, directly from theatre here or on 0844 482 5138.
Author received ticket and programme from The Corner Shop PR. Production photo by Manuel Harlan, used with permission.