Stage Door Review

The Ladykillers

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

✭✭

by Graham Linehan, directed by Tim Carroll

Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

July 6-October 12, 2019

Marcus: “It was a great plan, except for the Human Element. So many plans fail to take into account the Human Element”

The Shaw Festival has a major hit on its hands with The Ladykillers. Normally one might ask what point there is in adapting a classic film for the stage, but adaptor Graham Linehan has emphasized all that is most theatrical about the film which makes his adaption not feel like a hybrid but rather completely at home on stage. Director Tim Carroll has assembled a flawless cast and reveals a real flair for directing farce. Judith Bowden’s whimsically elaborate set is simply unforgettable. 

The Ladykillers (1955) directed by Alexander Mackendrick is best known as one of the greatest of the Ealing comedies. It is so perfect in itself you might well wonder why anyone would want to remake the film, as did the Coen brothers in their flop of 2004, let alone adapt it for the stage. Yet, Graham Linehan’s adaptation is so successful you feel the film is a version of the play and not the other way around. 

As in the film, the story concerns the aged widow Mrs. Wilberforce (Chick Reid), who lives alone with her noisy parrot near the railway tracks at  King's Cross in London. The action begins with Mrs. Wilberforce reporting her suspicions to a local policeman (Kristopher Bowman) that the local news agent is really an ex-Nazi spy. It seems that the good lady has ha long history of reporting suspicious activity and that the police have taken to humouring her.

It so happens that Mrs. Wilberforce wants to rent an upstairs room and the first person to inquire about it, takes it. This is the mysterious Professor Marcus (Damien Atkins), who says he leads a string quintet who will wish to practice in his room. The old woman, a fan of classical music, is overjoyed and welcomes the idea of high art being made in her humble dwelling.

In reality, Marcus is the head of a criminal gang who are planning to rob a security van at King's Cross station and choose to rent the room because its location is ideal. The gang pull off the complex robbery without a hitch and are about to vacate the premises when one of the gang accidentally reveals piles of banknotes in his cello case. The question now becomes which one of the gang will bump off the old lady and the show becomes an hilarious black comedy about murder.

Carroll has assembled a uniforming excellent case. Now Chick Reid is by no means 75 years old as Mrs. Wilberforce, who turned 21 in 1901 should be. (Katie Johnson who created the role in the film was 77.) Nevertheless, Reid does such a fine job of playing the sprightly little old lady that it may be her best ever performance. Reid captures just the right mixture in the character of sentimentality, suspicion and moral rectitude and never falls into any of the modern clichés such as feistiness too often used to typify older people. The matter-of-fact manner Reid lends the old woman in dealing with extremely unusual circumstance is thoroughly delightful. 

As Professor Marcus, Damien Atkins reveals himself as a master of comedy. His slinking, ultra-precise Marcus is very much like his Sherlock Holmes of last year only played for comedy. His timing is impeccable and his sudden changes of facial expression are highly amusing. Atkins gives Marcus the habit of dropping his tone of voice by an octave to emphasize the importance or secrecy of what he says. Atkins and Reid play perfectly off each other and form the engine that drives the entire comedy.

Surrounding Atkins are four actors who create a series of memorably comic portraits. Ric Reid is the nervous con man Major Courtney, who has a barely controllable affinity for women’s clothing. Martin Happer, who has become an expert at playing dim-witted hunks, is the ex-boxer One-Round, who does not have wits enough to know when to keep his mouth shut. Steven Sutcliffe adds a real atmosphere of menace as the Romanian thug Louie, who seems all too ready to kill someone. And Andrew Lawrie, an undaunted receiver of slapstick blows, is the one member of the gang who still has a few moral scruples.

Judith Bowden’s fantastic set is really a star in its own right. Set on a revolve the complex two-storey set shows us both the interior and the exterior of Mrs. Wilberforce’s crazily subsiding house. Facing the audience most often is the extraordinarily detailed interior that includes a parlour, a kitchen, stairs to the second floor and the decrepit bedroom the old lady is renting out. The revolve turns one side towards us to show what lies outside the upper bedroom window and the other side that show the outside of Mrs. Wilberforce’s slanted front door. Sound designer Fred Gabrsek evokes steam trains passing by right next the house so vividly we are not surprised so see that the vibrations shake everything in the house and make the lights waver and the wall sconces jiggle.

Although Bowden makes the house appear almost impassably cluttered with bric-à-brac, in fact, the clutter helps to hide numerous open playing areas that allow for the free flow of action.

With The Ladykillers, Tim Carroll has brought back the main stage farce which was once a regular feature of the Shaw Festival under former Artistic Director Christopher Newton. Given the aptitude Carroll demonstrates for this most theatrical of dramatic genres, let’s hope that that there will be more such successes in future. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Martin Happer, Ric Reid, Damien Atkins, Chick Reid, Andrew Lawrie and Steven Sutcliffe; Chick Reid and Damien Atkins; Andrew Laurie, Damien Atkins, Martin Happer, Steven Sutcliffe and Ric Reid. © 2019 David Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com.