Review: The Ladykillers, by William Rose, adapted by Graham Lineham, New Wolsey Theatre until September 30, then touring to Queens Theatre, Hornchuch, and Salisbury Playhouse.

For those not familiar with the plot. A gang of robbers pretending to be musicians fall foul of thei

For those not familiar with the plot. A gang of robbers pretending to be musicians fall foul of their landlady. Photo: Mike Kwasniak - Credit: Archant

First things first, let it be known that the film that this theatrical event is based on is one of my top 25, desert island movies. It has, therefore, a lot to live up to. Transferring any classic film from the big screen to the stage is a perilous job because it comes with a massive amount of baggage and expectation.

How do you solve a problem like Mrs Wilberforce? Photo: Mike Kwasniak

How do you solve a problem like Mrs Wilberforce? Photo: Mike Kwasniak - Credit: Archant

It’s not an easy thing to do because the audience is invariably very familiar with the original and will always be making comparisons – either consciously or unconsciously. So, it was a very brave decision by the New Wolsey to take an Ealing comedy classic and open their autumn season with it.

Did the gamble pay off? Happily, I can report that yes, it did – just about – although there are some areas where the comedy feels a little clunky.

Using the West End script by Father Ted writer Graham Lineham was a great idea because it turned what could have been a straight-forward crime caper into a character comedy.

The Ladykillers stands or falls by its casting and director Peter Rowe has got it right. Suffolk actress Ann Penfold makes the role of Mrs Wilberforce her own, dismissing all memories of Katie Johnson in the film, and she plays well opposite Steven Elliott as the charismatic, quick-thinking Professor Marcus.

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He wants to plan the perfect robbery, making large-scale theft into an art form – unfortunately he is saddled with a gang which is somewhat flawed when it comes to brain power. Stand out supporting performances comes from Damian Williams as the Tommy Cooper-esque One Round and Graham Seed as the nervy Major Courtney.

The play is at its best when dealing with character and dialogue. Unfortunately, some of the physical gags lack that deft touch that characterises the verbal humour. Harry, the young hoodlum, gets hit on the head ten times too often and the repeated sight gag of Mrs Wilberforce continually stepping on Prof. Marcus’ long scarf needs to be executed with a lighter touch to be repeatedly funny.

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There’s just room to mention that all the action takes place in Mrs Wilbeforce’s brilliantly compact two storey house, which has been dropped on a revolve by designer Richard Foxton, and which allows us to follow the action both inside and out, upstairs and downstairs. He has crammed in everything including the kitchen sink, a crazy downstairs cupboard and atmospheric roof top.

It’s a good start to the season and it delivers plenty of laughs but at times its less than the sum of its parts.

Andrew Clarke

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