The West End’s apparent desire to turn itself into a giant multiplex of film properties being put onstage has this year included stage versions of Shrek, Ghost, A Private Function (re-titled Betty Blue Eyes) and Cool Hand Luke, though the latter quickly had egg on its face (as well as in its title character’s belly when he takes – and wins – a bet to eat 50 of them in a row). But the joy and surprise of The Ladykillers, a dotty, potty black comedy based on the Ealing film classic of 1955, is that it has a theatrical vitality and life all of its own.
And it doesn’t add songs, either, to provide it. Instead, as newly and wittily scripted by Graham Linehan and staged with flair and real relish by Sean Foley, it comes across as a freshly minted cross between the subversive pleasures a play by Joe Orton and Martin McDonagh, as moral codes get twisted and the body count piles up.
It follows an improbable bunch of small-time criminals who plan and pull off a heist of robbing a security van en route from King’s Cross station, whose ringleader Professor Marcus rents a room from a sweet, gullible woman living nearby, and convinces her that the friends who regularly visit him there are, in fact, part of a string quintet that he runs (and whose members were coincidentally recruited by placing an ad in The Stage newspaper).
When they find themselves having to duly perform an impromptu concert for a tea party she’s throwing, these non-musicians improvise furiously, pretending that the music they are making is a radical, misunderstood kind, and their audience is duly persuaded. As the Professor hilariously remarks, “Being fooled by art is one of the primary pleasures afforded to the middle classes.”
Beyond the heady aphorisms, the play is also giddily and guiltily entertaining as the gang plots to murder the landlady, but only succeed in successively killing each other. Director Sean Foley has playful fun steering his brilliant ensemble through a minefield of physical comedy, and his production has the best performance by a set in London (designed by Michael Taylor).
The cast are pretty good, too. They’re having fun, and so, as a result, do we. Marcia Warren is in her inestimable element as Mrs Wilberforce, magnificently impervious to the plotting happening under her nose and being taken in by a series of lies. There are also richly coloured comic performances from the gang, with Peter Capaldi looking like a giant exclamation mark as the plot twists into ever more extreme contortions, with James Fleet’s Major Courtney revealing a penchant for cross-dressing, Clive Rowe’s One-Round turning out to be not quite as dumb as he seems, Stephen Wight suffering an endless series of hits and pratfalls, and Ben Miller as the most vicious of the gang.