Graham Linehan adapted from the Screenplay by William Rose
Sat 6th December to Sat 13th December
The Ladykillers is a classic black comedy; a sweet little old lady, alone in her house, is pitted against a gang of criminal misfits who will stop at nothing.
Posing as amateur musicians, Professor Marcus and his gang rent rooms in the lopsided house of sweet but strict Mrs Wilberforce. The villains plot to involve her, unwittingly, in Marcus' brilliantly conceived heist job. The police are left stumped but Mrs Wilberforce becomes wise to their ruse and Marcus concludes that there is only one way to keep the old lady quiet. With only her parrot, General Gordon, to help her, Mrs Wilberforce is alone with five desperate men. But who will be forced to face the music?
The first round of applause for this stage adaptation of the classic Ealing comedy comes as the curtains part to reveal the most meticulously detailed two storey set of a deliciously cluttered 1950s home.
It's as the sinister film music dies away that we meet harmless little old lady Louisa Wilberforce, explaining to the nice policeman (Matt Sweatman) that the newsagent on the corner is really an ex-Nazi who's got it in for her because of the critical letters she wrote about Mr Hitler to the Sunday Times. But of course, it isn't Nazis Miss Wilberforce has to fear - it's her new lodger, Professor Marcus (Jon Elves) and his nefarious pals in the chamber orchestra 'rehearsing' in her spare bedroom.
Criterion stalwart Jean Firth, mother of a dynasty of younger performers, makes a great job of Miss Wilberforce in this piece which has some wonderful lines but does occasionally drag.
Jon Elves obviously relishes lines like "being fooled by art is one of the primary pleasures of the middle classes" as his mis-matched band of the criminal classes are finally forced to play their instruments in public. That's right after being discovered holding a 'conference' in a cupboard and the stunning special effects of the whole set being regularly shaken during the passage of the trains outside the window.
I loved Peter Bagley's fake major, with his pencil-moustache mannerisms and his terrific scene up on the roof with Mafia-style gangster Louis (Trev Clarke) who proved a dab hand with his flick-knife. Then there was Pete Gillam as the pill-popping likely lad and Craig Shelton wringing out every nuance from his role as the dim-witted ex-boxer with the tender heart.
The ensemble-playing between all five criminals was really fun while Jean Firth maintained her bewildered innocence as she tripped daintily between her potential murderers and her parakeet's cage.
I can see why director Keith Railton was drawn to this adaptation and the set, quite apart from the cast, is worth the ticket price.
But there are one or two wilderness moments when you want to shout: "Just get on with it."
I think the overarching achievement you wrought through sleepless nights, blood, sweat and good wine was the sheer excellence of the companion playing from each and every actor. I can't recall seeing ensemble work where each player seemed to blossom from each other - either here or Leicester or other theatres in decades. It was their genuine warmth and happiness which came over to the very receptive Thursday audience and that can only come from the warmth of the Director. No wonder you say how much laughter was the keynote in rehearsals. Hats and trusses off to you.
The sheer inventiveness of your rehearsed action and reaction was, by Thursday, honed and in so many places, jewel bright in timing and impact. We seemed to only just get over this bit of ingenuity and laugh before the next example piled in.
In recall, so much was made of each part - hard to select a memory from so many. Matt's PC Mac and lumpy lady in tweeds were of a pair - from gthe unintended salute to the little finger raised over the teacup - it needed this link to commonsense and reality [Mrs Tweeds apart!] to play of the increasing mania as the play unfolded.
What can I say about my sweetheart - Jeannie Firth - with whom so many years ago it was my pleasure to work and try to upstage. The mannerisms, that walk, the total vision of a lady who has no intention of having a dotage, the firmness of her resolve to do right and her impeccable timing - younger aspiring players should watch a video of her Mrs Wilberforce technique. For me, what was so especially lovely was the way she totally inhabited the setting I designed for her - Jeannie was at home from curtain up to close and this made believing in her character such an easy joy. The interplay between herself and Prof Marcus was a huge pleasure to watch - and the scarf! Well worth ideas about the standing on it needing umpteen rehearsals as the defenestration of Marcus, his throttling and end was totally believable, the real high point. And her singing to long dead Arthur of 'Silver threads amongst the gold' was a triumph of timing and delivery, holding the audience enthralled and with tears in the eye. In the prog, it says how Jeannie has rediscovered the fun of acting can be. Don't let her go!
Professor Marcus, created between you and Jon, was riveting from his first looming at the front door. For the full length if the play and through his invention and characterisation, there was never a thought or echo of Alec G. Jon made this his own. And for sheer incremental manic playing, I've not seen playing like it in so many, many years. It takes real prowess to start at a level of eccentricity and early tension and then to grow it before our eyes into the staring eyed manic performance which in the latter stages recalled Basil Fawlty at his very best - all whirling limbs, scarf and splintered teeth enamel as his Plan and gang disintegrated about him. And yet his was a generous performance which enabled other cast members to build around. I loved this performance.
Pete Bagley I've known and loved since Chamberlain's Munich flight but I've rarely seen him at such a glorious best. The audience simply had to watch his every move and every reaction as they showed such real polish and characterisation. He made such success of the nervous yet Col Blimp bravado of a Major Courtney - here flustered at his past, there appearing in full camel coat glory and then to his peach of a duo with Jeannie as he turns his confidence trickery up full to work off Mrs Wilberforce's innocence. Loved his cameo on the roof! So glad the tiles and knob held up and didn't precipitate an early exit.
Harry Boy was the Ted from my childhood when my oldest bro and his greasy mates complete with DA, brothel creepers and drapes ripped up the seats in the fleapits called the Alexandra and Crown cinemas in the city! He captured the easy swagger and speech style which I remember so well.
Not an easy part to move from teddy boy to OCD cleaner on uppers and downers but Pete made it his own and thus gave reality to the fluffing of his task to smother Mrs W - diverted by dust. And his head through the stair spindles paid back the time and worry we had getting them just right. People I was with to this day don't know how you got it so realistic - timing and rehearsal between Harry and One Round got it off to a T. Great fun.
Talking of Craig's One Round, his was indeed a rounded portrayal where an easier Bernard Breslaw Carry On act in 2D would have been other's option. He seemed to fill the stage with his size and childlike menace and through his mannerisms and limited speech gave a truthful performance. His defence of Mrs Lopsided was deep and meaningful - we believed that he would defend her and bump off others as indeed he did. An that knife in the hat! Another mystery about which my friends have pondered long! So neat and thus so believable - and Louis' timing in concealing the knife made it all the more so. As for missing his brain! One Round's passing was simple and ingenious - much as his performance.
Louis' Eastern European muscle with menace came over the footlights a treat. The accent and mannerisms - made Trev's performance so very believable. Genuine menace onstage can easily edge into melodrama just a hint away from the hiss. But we followed Louis' bravado through uncertainty about his fellow gang members to tremors of confidence in Prof M's Great Plan to genuine fear of attack by the old lady posse.
Watching him play with the Major's fears on the rooftop was real example of this actor's breadth of approach. He was just what was needed.
Jane and the Lavender Ladies were terrifying in their gabbled gossip, poking and pulling of the gang but so believable. The rehearsals must have been a hoot! The odour of mothballs and medicated ointment wafted over the footlights and the flash of bloomer completed this theatrical cooperative cameo.
My thanks to Judy, ChuckleBrother Doug, Des and Simon's gang are heartfelt. The setting demanded mu