Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh – until 13 May 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Assured comedy performances and ambitious staging combine to make a success of The Ladykillers for the Grads, at the Assembly Roxy to Saturday. The classic 1955 black comedy film, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, was adapted for the stage by Father Ted co-creator Graham Linehan in 2011.
It may or may not be the greatest of the Ealing comedies, but it is certainly the one that immediately suggests itself as theatrical. The story remains the same – a group of crooks pose as musicians while planning to rob a security van. Their plots take place under the nose of their kindly if eccentric landlady Mrs Wilberforce. Her trusting nature may prove a help, but her strong moral compass may prove a hindrance.
Linehan tweaks William Rose’s original screenplay rather than revamping it. It is a clever modernisation that notably ups the swear quotient, and by recasting it as a period piece brings some of the darker themes into sharper focus while retaining the comedy of the original. It certainly makes much more sense than the Coen brothers’ ill-advised 2004 remake of the film as an American-set Tom Hanks vehicle.
Anyone playing the gang’s leader Professor Marcus is always going to have a hard job banishing Alec Guinness from the audience’s thoughts, but Lawrence Wearing does a fine job, combining an oleaginous gentlemanliness with hints of deep darkness.
He is more than matched by Wendy Mathison’s pitch-perfect Mrs Wilberforce. The plaster cast on her arm at first appears to be an interesting addition to the character, but it soon becomes clear it is the genuine article. Either way, there is no need to make any allowances for injury in what is a remarkably fine performance.
The rest of the cast are also highly impressive. Stewart Kerr’s punch-drunk boxer One-Round is a masterclass in comic timing, and he also manages to give an apparently stereotypical character a genuinely sympathetic side. Dale McQueen’s cleaning-obsessed speedfreak spiv Harry Robinson has an equally impressive comic sense, while Oliver Cookson’s ageing con man Major Courtney evokes pleasing memories of countless similar characters from British comedy in a performance of genuine charm.
Steven Croall has a more difficult job as Louis, as his ‘comedy evil foreigner’ character seems out of place to modern audiences. Once again, however, Croall has enough nous to make him funny.
Sara-Jane McGeachy’s cameo as the put-upon Constable MacDonald adds a layer of welcome sanity, while Hannah Bradley supplies context as a suitably cut-glass BBC newsreader, as well as providing the voice of Mrs Wilberforce’s parrot. Angela Harkness Robertson supplies a haughty grandeur to Mrs Tromleyton, leader of a large and oddly assorted ‘Society of Women’ who are used effectively to add atmosphere before the performance and during the interval.
This is indicative of an expansive approach by director David Grimes. Not all of his choices come off so well, however. The decision to use so much of the floor area and stage downstairs at the Roxy means that the action flows seamlessly, but at times there are real problems of visibility for a large proportion of the audience – not least when sections of the action take place behind them.
Audibility from the cast is not a problem, but the recording – used by the gang use to fool Mrs Wilberforce that they are rehearsing – was practically inaudible, making an important section of the plot difficult to follow.
Much of the direction is very clever, however, and there are some striking visual effects. The pacing of the show, moreover, is exemplary, with the set-up of the first act building to some beautifully snappy and hilarious moments in the second half.
Overall, there is a clever balance between characterisation, darker moments and humour that makes this a highly accomplished production.