Graham Linehan's adaptation of this classic 1955 Ealing comedy rightly won rave reviews when it opened at the Gielgud Theatre in 2011. Sean Foley's production is back in the West End now with a completely new cast portraying the criminal gang who pose as a string quintet while planning a heist in the King's Cross home of an oblivious old biddy.
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 (when the old dear finds out, the oddball hoodlums wind up killing off each as they prevaricate over despatching her) and converts it into an opportunity for uproarious slapstick stage farce, fizzing with entirely fresh gags.
In this version, deliciously, the fraudulent quintet find themselves compelled to perform for Mrs Wilberforce and her female friends who certainly get “the teatime of their lives” as the Professor and his screwy crew try to pass off intolerable cacophony as avant-garde musical experiment. And there's a nice vein of satire about how “creative” folk are allowed to get away with murder. When the felons, trying to dodge the local bobby, are found preposterously crammed into a tiny cupboard and their puzzled landlady asks why, the Professor airily declares “Mrs Wilberforce, we are artists”.
A second view of the show also emphasises the comic indestructibility of the material for it has to be admitted that the replacement cast do not, by and large, have the lunatic flair of their predecessors; yet, even so, the evening is a highly enjoyable way of spending two-and-a-quarter hours. John Gordon Sinclair brings an attractively sarcastic Scots quizzicality to the role of the criminal mastermind, but his portrayal feels too benign and underpowered compared to Peter Capaldi's glinting, dangerously-mad-genius characterisation, while Angela Thorne tugs the heartstrings as a sweetly doddery Mrs W without sufficiently signalling the cranky moral obstinacy that makes her an unwittingly fatal figure.
Ralf Little overdoes the twitches and tics as the pill-popping spiv who can't be restrained from polishing the furniture when he's “on the reds”. But Chris McCalphy is endearingly funny as the big thick oaf nicknamed “One Round” whose idea of preparing to play a cello is to tuck it under his chin and Simon Day brings a whiff of melancholy to the transvestite yearnings of his hilarious bogus Major. Michael Taylor's lopsided folly of a set, which goes into dotty knick-knack rattling spasm at the judder of every passing train, once again gives the star performance.
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