Black comedy packed with laughs

The music killers: Prof Marcus (Paul Bown) conducts the world's most talentless string quartet for Mrs Wilberforce's ladies  in Michael Taylor's glorious set

The Ladykillers

Wolverhampton Grand

****

By Roger Clarke

IT is a remarkable 58 years since Professor Marcus, played then by a then unknighted Alec Guiness, led his oddball collection of  misfits through the doors of Ealing Studios and into the home of dotty old biddy Mrs Wilberforce.

The film, with a screenplay by William Rose,  features high up on any list of best comedies of all time and this stage adaptation by Graham Linehan has lost little of the lunacy and plain old fashioned daftness of the original. It really is laugh a minute stuff.

The whole thing is helped by a marvellous set from Michael Taylor which has a look of a Blackpool Pleasure Beach Haunted House circa 1950 about it with nothing level and no right angles. It cleverly transforms to rooftops, complete with smoking chimneys, a railway tunnel and a street scene – where we even have an armed robbery acted out with tiny, remote controlled cars and police cars on the walls of Mrs Wilberforce's rundown, Victorian pile where pipes need hammering, lights flicker and passing trains cause smoke and havoc.

It all helps director Sean Foley keep up a cracking pace which is an essential in this kind of comedy.

The story is simple. Mrs Wilberforce, played with much padding, fun and charm by Michele Dotrice, is no longer all there, reports aliens, fugitive Nazi leaders disguised as newsagents and the like to the police, in the shape of Constable MacDonald, played by Marcus Taylor, and lives alone with her parrot General Gordon.

Entering her life comes the Prof, played with panache by Paul Bown, who answers her ad for rooms to let, who brings with him his gang disguised as a string quartet practising for a concert.

There is Major Courtney, played by Clive Mantle, who has a penchant for dressing up in women's clothes and panics to the verge of nervous breakdown at almost any question.

Michele Dotrice as Mrs Wilberforce listens as Paul Bown as Professor Marcus spins her yet another far fetched yarn. Picture: Dan Tsantilis.

Then there is One Round, who is Mr Lawson in the quartet – “Is that me?” – played by Chris McCalphy.

One Round was never one of nature's gifted and add punch drunk to that – which gives you an idea of where One Round came from – and  becoming a competitor on Mastermind is not really an option. He takes stupidity to new levels, taking it to an art form.

That pair are almost normal though to Continental psychopath Louis who wears a knife as other men might wear a ring – in his hand all the time – played, with menaces, by Cliff Parisi and finally Harry who takes red pills to calm him down, blue pills to counter the red and then yellow pills to counter the blue. Harry, played by William Troughton is either cleaning or twitching – when he is not being attacked by inanimate objects. He must be well and truly cream crackered at the end of every show!

The gang manage to pull off their daring robbery and use Mrs Wilberforce to get the money back to the house but when she finds out she demands that they give themselves up to the police – which is not really a viable option among the criminal classes so they set out to dispose of her . . . with mixed results. Let us say she is the only one around for a curtain call at the end.

The script ranges from witty to downright daft but is always gloriously funny with shades of The 39 Steps, Bottom and The Young Ones at times. For music lovers there is a concert of experimental music – i.e. none of the musicians can actually play – for Mrs Wilberforce's friends to enjoy.

Some of the story is a little dated; these days armed robbers would be looking for a lot more than £200,000 from a five man heist, while when was the last time anyone saw a friendly neighbourhood copper on the beat?

But that hardly matters in an evening which provides so much fun and entertainment from such a fine cast. There is no great issue to think about, no complex plot to follow, no great dilemma to discuss on the way home, no moral questions to face or answer, you just sit back, relax enjoy and laugh – and you can't ask more of a comedy than that. To 02-02-13.

 

Meanwhile in the second movement . . .

****

IF there was a competition to decide who comes out top in Graham Linehan's black comedy – a superb cast or the remarkable set – it would probably end in a draw.

Michele Dotrice, famous for her role as Michael Crawford's patient wife in the TV hit Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, is a delight as the sweet old lady, Louisa Wilberforce, who inadvertently provides accommodation for a gang of crooks plotting a £200,000 heist.

The crackpot crooks, led by Professor Marcus, have the audience in stitches with their antics while posing as amateur musicians practicing for a concert, and their eventual efforts to silence the gentle landlady have a surprising conclusion.

The set, representing Mrs Wilberforce's unstable home, is a triumph of design. Furniture slides across the floor, lights flicker, pictures fall from walls and steam billows indoors every time a train to Newcastle thunders by.

 And the home is even able to turn inside-out to reveal rooftop action. A model train steams into the station and a chase involving police cars, complete with a pile-up, is cleverly created.

Paul Brown impresses as Professor Marcus, the ‘gentleman' thief who masterminds the robbery, backed by his motley collection of henchmen, none of whom seem the full shilling.

Gangling Clive Mantle looks a ringer for Basil Fawlty in his role as the batty Major Courtney, and Chris McCalphy is a knockout playing the punch drunk ex boxer ‘One Round' who turns out to be more warm-hearted than the rest of the five-strong gang.

There's a happy ending, of sorts, as Mrs Wilberforce turns the tables on the bungling thieves.

To 02.02.13

Paul Marston 

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