Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Ladykillers – Graham Linehan's version of Ealing comedy heist in The Lyric Theatre until 8 July

Mrs Wilberforce is old and lives alone, tormenting the police with her paranoid notions of criminality in her locale. Professor Marcus rents out her space room and pretends to use it for music rehearsals with a group of friends, but instead the band of criminals are planning to rob a security van at the nearby railway station.

Lyric executive producer Jimmy Fay has taken Graham Linehan’s script for The Ladykillers – which adapts the original Ealing comedy film – and adds another layer on top, using a female cast to play the male criminals. While this could be seen as a crude response to the Waking the Feminists movement within Irish theatre, the resulting performances are less stylised and less predictable than they might have been with male actors, and instead inject extra off-beat humour into the piece.

Stella McCusker’s portrayal of Mrs Wilberforce is warm and elegant, a character full of suspicion and curiosity. All the way through, there’s a feeling that there could be more to Mrs Wilberforce than meets the eye. Yet this production misses a trick by eliminating any notion of ambiguity in its conclusion.

Abigail McGibbon plays the uber-confident Professor Marcus, a criminal mastermind with a cunning plan and an answer for everything and everyone.

Julie Maxwell brings the kind of facial expressions that drive TV or film comedy to the stage role playing Harry Robinson, a light-fingered, OCD crook. Together with Jo Donnelly’s effeminate transvestite Major Courtney, the pair are a joy to watch. Maria Connolly scouts the room like an army squaddie on patrol though her version of Louis Harvey feels more like Italian Mafia than a violent Romanian criminal.

Cheryl Fergison brings ample buffoonery to the role of One Round, a gentle oaf of very little brain who can be relied upon to upset every situation.

Nuala McKeever bends her knees as Constable Macdonald, the local bobby condemned to listen to Mrs Wilberforce’s far-fetched tales. And Christina Nelson makes a brief appearance that briefly adds colour and warmth to the play.
“Being fooled by art is one of the primary pleasures of the middle classes”

The 39 Steps was another film adaptation brought to the stage of the Lyric last year in a co-production with Bruiser. It offered a high-conceit, fast-paced murder mystery set in 1935 which revolved around physical humour. In contrast, The Ladykillers is set twenty years later and relies on misunderstanding and misdirection as well as characterisation more than speed and knockabout comedy.

Graham Linehan (Father Ted, Black Books, The IT Crowd) is well used to writing situation comedy and set-based productions. Yet his version of The Ladykillers is not packed to the rafters with jokes, nor is it totally farcical, which is a shame because the quality cast are capable of delivering gags and audiences would lap them up having come to the theatre more for entertainment than for the cleverness of complex performances.

After the interval, both the heist and the pace of the play become derailed as Mrs Wilberforce realises that she has unwittingly become an accomplice and dissent breaks out amongst the gang which slowly self destructs. The cupboard scene is splendid, but the upstairs window is used a little too often (a problem with the script) and sometimes without much panache (the direction).

Stuart Marshall’s marvellous ramshackle set with its wonky walls fills the full height of the Lyric’s main stage with Mrs Wilberforce’s two floor flat and its view over the railway line, and supports the multi-level up stairs, down stairs, out windows comedy. There’s more than one “silly old bird” in the flat and the invisible parrot is a fun addition to the cast. Conor Mitchell’s sound effects and soundscape help anchor the piece in the 1950s and add a lot to the atmosphere.

Graham Linehan’s version of The Ladykillers works well as an on-stage tribute to the original Ealing comedy film. However, as a standalone piece of theatre for new audiences in 2017, its inherited pedestrian pace left me wanting more theatrical excitement despite the good performances.

The Ladykillers is playing in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until 8 July.

No comments: