New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 14th April, 2015
Working in collaboration with Hull Truck, the New Vic stages this new production of the West End hit adaptation of the much-loved Ealing comedy film. Having seen both the film and the original tour, I was intrigued to see how they would stage this rather housebound story where doors and windows are very important, in the round.
The answer is: brilliantly. Patrick Connellan’s set works on different levels, so to speak. Mrs Wilberforce’s cluttered house is represented by platforms, seemingly held up by stacks of books and suitcases. The upstairs room she leases to a lodger is higher up – with a suggestion of the window and the roof and railway tracks beyond. Doors are stunted, sawn-off affairs that delineate the boundaries of one space and another and the furniture keeps us in post-war London. A flight of stairs is formed from treads that look like suitcases, adding to the cluttered look but also heightens the setting so that the farcical aspects of the plot are accentuated. Radio announcers and telephone callers pop up out of the floor. We are at a remove from reality and it works very well.
Anna Kirke is marvellous as sprightly old biddy Mrs Wilberforce, a seemingly frail and delicate and not to mention dotty character, forever bothering the police with paranoid tales of Nazis in the newsagents. Timothy Speyer’s Constable is a slice of old England and helps set the tone for the rest of the piece, although Graham Linehan’s adaptation of William Rose’s screenplay has a more modern line in gags. Speyer also appears as Mrs Tromleyton, along with a host of old ladies, not all of them female and not all of them clean-shaven. It’s a Pythonesque moment, again underlining the Britishness of the humour.
Andy Gillies is superb as One Round, a heavy who is endearingly thick. But there is menace in his physicality. Matthew Rixon, by contrast, is Major Courtney, an old-school English gent type with a fondness for frocks, in a delicious performance of suppressed camp. Matt Sutton brings energy as pill-popping Teddy Boy Harry Robinson, and the marvellous Michael Hugo brings darkness as vicious Romanian killer Louis. Hugo is deadpan for the most part, looking like Eddie Munster or Nosferatu at times and his emotional outbursts are perfectly pitched for both humour and threat.
But the night belongs to Andrew Pollard as leader of the pack, Professor Marcus, with a crazy haircut and a scarf Tom Baker’s Doctor would kill for. Pollard’s characterisation fills the stage with erudition, false good manners, and a camp sensibility. His pretensions eventually prove to be his downfall as in the second act, events take a much darker turn. Director Mark Babych handles the changes of tone expertly even though sometimes the action seems a little cramped. The crazy set becomes a hell of passing trains with their noise and their steam, and a real sense of nastiness comes into play. Suddenly the comedy is very black indeed.
The Ladykillers is an enjoyable romp with an edge of menace. It’s nostalgic and yet fresh, thanks to a very funny script, played to a tee by an ensemble of all-round excellence. The message is clearly that crime doesn’t pay, but I would urge you to beg, borrow or, yes, even steal a ticket if you have to.