The Ladykillers

Graham Linehan, from the screenplay by William Rose
Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse / Fiery Angel
The Lowry, Salford

Michele Dotrice as Mrs Wilberforce, Clive Mantle as Major Courtney, Paul Bown as Professor Marcus, Chris McCalphy as One-Round and William Troughton as Harry
Paul Bown as Professor Marcus and Michele Dotrice as Mrs Wilberforce Credit: Dan Tsantilis
William Troughton as Harry and Michele Dotrice as Mrs Wilberforce Credit: Dan Tsantilis

One of the darkest of the Ealing comedies—and some were pretty dark—was The Ladykillers, featuring a script by William Rose and some of the cream of British screen talent of the era.

The plot revolves around a group of criminals planning to rob a security van full of money. However they pose as musicians, a string quartet in fact, led by the brains behind the gang "Professor Marcus" (not his real name, of course), when they rent a room in the house of old Mrs Wilberforce in which to make their plans. They cover themselves by playing Boccherini's Minuet on a record player and snatching up their instruments whenever their landlady brings up another pot of tea.

So far, the title doesn't come into it—but when Mrs Wilberforce discovers the real plan and the part she has unwittingly played in it, the criminals turn on one another when deciding how to deal with her.

The script has been freshened up a lot by Father Ted co-writer Graham Linehan, but in a subtle way that keeps the spirit of the original intact while injecting more laughs into it. He also cleverly brings it up-to-date without taking it out of its original era.

Michael Taylor's set, revealed when the cartoonish front cloth of a house flies at the start, is strikingly impressive, with some secrets that aren't revealed until much later. Mrs Wilberforce explains that she has subsidence, and so the floors, walls, doors and staircases are all at wild angles to one another, which must be disorientating to perform on but looks wonderful.

The robbery itself, complete with car chases with the police, is done in a very clever way which I won't reveal (not a projection screen in sight) as is some of the later action that takes the robbers out of the upstairs window and onto the train tracks below.

This isn't the all-star cast that went from Liverpool Playhouse to the West End, but there are some pretty decent performances all the same. It's a shame that Clive Mantle had to drop out after a horrific attack in Newcastle on the current tour, but his understudy Marcus Taylor makes a pretty decent job of Major Courtney, who seems to have a fondness for women's clothes.

Leading the gang is Paul Bown as distinguished Professor Marcus, supported by William Troughton as pill-popping and compulsive cleaner Harry Robinson, Chris McCalphy as all-brawn-but-no-brain One-Round and Cliff Parisi as foreign-accented Louis Harvey, who is suspicious of everyone—particularly little old ladies. As the main little old lady, Michelle Dotrice is wonderfully batty, especially when trying to convince Andrew Ashford's Constable Mcdonald of her wild theories about her neighbours.

The characters and the humour aren't exactly subtle, but Sean Foley's direction is swift and funny, making for a hugely entertaining piece of theatre. Fans of the film can be reassured that this adaptation does justice to the original but adds a few touches of its own, including the wonderful set and some nice little magical special effects from Scott Penrose.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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