The Ladykillers, Gielgud Theatre, London (5/5)

 

Honour among thieves? Try telling that to the bunch of oddball crooks who wind up murdering each other in the classic 1955 Ealing comedy The Ladykillers.

That perfect film was mirthlessly remade as a 2004 Hollywood movie with Tom Hanks in the Alec Guinness role of the criminal mastermind of the gang who, while planning an armed robbery, pose as an amateur string quintet in the lopsided house of an old dear near King's Cross.

Not an encouraging precedent, then, for a full-scale stage version? You might have thought so. But Graham Linehan (of Father Ted and The IT Crowd fame) defies augury with this inspired adaptation that converts the proceedings into a hilarious send-up of loony, slapstick farce. Even Michael Taylor's skew-whiff domestic folly of a set turns in a wonderful performance, as furniture rattles and rotates to the judder of every passing train and, in a potty, planned malfunction, a rogue brass knob keeps falling off a crucial door.

The robbers are now abject slaves to their various compulsions. I particularly liked Stephen Wight's pill-popping wide-boy who, when he is “on the reds”, goes all house-proud and can't be restrained from polishing everything within a mile radius and James Fleet's bogus Major who becomes strangely quiet and tremulous at the spectacle of an empty frock. Peter Capaldi is brilliant as the certifiably deluded Prof, striking angular “mad genius” attitudes and bounding around the place in his frantic struggle to contain the gang's involuntary urge towards self-incrimination.

In Sean Foley's pitch-perfect production, this masterfully exaggerated performance is counterbalanced by the delicious comic restraint of Marcia Warren's quietly oblivious and faintly sad Mrs Wilberforce. The evening abounds in terrific running gags, both visual and verbal and it keeps tipping a knowing wink at the audience. “Being fooled by art is one of the many pleasures afforded the middle classes” declares the Professor with a nod to stalls, after the crooks have given “the tea time of their lives” to a bunch of old biddies with cacophony masquerading as musical experiment. But this is a show that is destined to appeal to all brow levels, offering everything from wizardry that can fake the pill-popper's impaling by a banister to coded stuff for the cognoscenti, as when the Major hymns the “compassion” of people in King's Cross area and their understanding of “originality” to Ben Miller's wonderful, word-mangling Romanian.

This is comic bliss with (pace the set) brass knobs on. 

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