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Ealing to Broadway? The Ladykillers, a new high in comedy, should transfix New York

November 19, 2011

THE stage adaption of the classic 1955 Ealing comedy The Ladykillers is an unmitigated triumph, a joyous, wonderful dark romp driven impeccably by a classy cast of the biggest stars of modern British comic acting.

There hasn’t been a better, more spectacularly staged production at Liverpool Playhouse. Ever.

Never mind transferring to London’s West End, it deserves to run on New York’s Broadway for years, such is its brilliance. And that’s not just to satisfy the torturous pun in the headline to this post.

The cast, led by the ridiculously talented Peter Capaldi, evoke the original ensemble beautifully without slavishly recreating its performances.  Just as well, because, it could be argued with some justification, that Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom and Peter Sellars gave career-defining turns in the Oscar nominated film.

Capaldi is an amazing stage presence. He does not ape the gap-toothed creepiness of Alec Guinness as Professor Marcus, the mastermind of a heist that goes wrong. Rather, he seems to channel both Guinness, and that other giant of Ealing, Alastair Sim, in a melodramatic performance full of disingenuous ticks and bravura mugging to the crowd.

His comic timing is breathtaking and a testament to a rare talent these days – someone who excels in all dramatic genres. It is a million light years away from his other great roles as Malcolm in The Thick of It and Uncle Rory in the telly adaptation of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road.

Really the key to it, though, is down to the depth of talent in the cast. They were flawless. Ben Miller, doing the Herbert Lom character of Louis, the knife-wielding psycho, embellishes a burgeoning CV as a bullet proof, safe as houses go-to-comedy-guy. Stephen Wright, doing the Peter Sellars role of Harry, the pill popping Teddy Boy, is remarkable. His series of prat falls involving the blackboard on which the heist is planned, were a joyous throwback to the spirit of those great British film comedies of the post war era.

Equally brilliant is Marcia Warren as Mrs Wilburforce, the old lady who unwittingly hosts the five-man robbery gang and stumbles into the middle of the aftermath of their operation.

This is all rather unfair to both children’s TV favourite Clive Rowe and Vicar of Dibley legend, James Fleet, who both turn in beautifully realised turns, and, who despite getting a couple of the big laughs, had to be content with less showy roles.

A few people have noted how remarkable the set is – they are right.

The haunting, noirish shadows of the old Kings Cross house in the film is perfectly realised for the stage show thanks to brilliant lighting direction and must set a new mark for non-musical theatre productions.

The set turns frequently to reveal the front of the house and, notably, the back for a most impressive death plunge. The film made much of two rooms in the creepy house, Mrs Wilburforce’s parlour, and the bedroom she rents to Marcus in which the robbers pretend to be rehearsing as a string quintet while planning the heist. On stage, the split level design and lighting work well to separate both.

It may be the first time in drama where we were breaking down the fifth, sixth and seventh walls. That’s a Brecht gag for the drama ponces.

Initial reviews had suggested that the second half suffered from being slower and less dynamic than the first, but that wasn’t apparent tonight. May be writer Graham Linehan had done a quick rewrite, but the second half was the same hellzapoppin’ riot of gags and physical set pieces as the first and, as the bodies start to stack-up, was dramaticaly gripping. The sad, railway tunnel dénouement for one hapless character was spectacularly realised.

It’s transferring to the Guilguid Theatre after tomorrow’s last show in Liverpool. I’d beg, steal and borrow to see it again. It’s utterly brilliant. It deserves to run on Broadway for years.

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