Graham Linehan’s adaptation of the 1955 Ealing Studios comedy classic The Ladykillers was well-received when it was first staged in London in 2011. Oldham Coliseum’s production of this British favourite sees Mrs Wilberforce, an old lady living with her diseased parrot, take in lodger “Professor” Marcus, the mastermind of a criminal gang. Disguised as a rehearsing classical quintet, the group plan their latest heist in Mrs Wilberforce’s spare bedroom – but when their true identities are revealed, the gang are forced to take desperate measures to prevent the old lady from giving them away.
Foxton’s set design for Mrs Wilberforce’s house – the play’s sole location – is rich with detail, from persistently crooked picture frames to old-fashioned taps. Its dual levels are full of hiding places and opportunities for slapstick, but most impressive of all is the effect created when trains pass on the neighbouring tracks. This device is used recurringly to mark scene changes or highlight dramatic moments – railway posts that are visible over the roof drop their signals, smoke billows and lights flash to blackout behind their old-fashioned shades as the trains rumble past.
Standout performances come from Chris Hannon as the scheming, slippery ringleader – his first appearance silhouetted at Mrs Wilberforce’s front door is genuinely creepy – and Howard Gray as the comically dim-witted One Round. Unfortunately, Roberta Kerr appears rather too robust and down-to-earth to convince as Mrs Wilberforce, who should ideally be frail and doddery for maximum comic effect.
Although Linehan’s modern additions to the script may not be strictly in keeping with the original film, they do gain plenty of laughs from the audience. Major Courtney is a closet cross-dresser, exposed when he is caught posing with Mrs Wilberforce’s best dress; Polish gang member Louis makes the occasional slip with the English language – including asserting that old ladies give him “the penises.”
Unfortunately, this production doesn’t capitalise on as many opportunities for laughs as it should. Some subtler comical moments – such as when One Round starts putting on someone else’s jacket over his own – are lost in the grand scheme of the action. There are occasional flags in pace too, as when the Major attempts to escape via the roof.
Overall though, The Ladykillers is an enjoyable show with high production values and some excellent character performances – it just lacks the dark, subtle edge of its namesake.