Considering that classic movies are immediately available to watch in the privacy of one’s home for considerably less than a fistful of dollars, there really is no point in faithfully turning them into expensive-to-see plays. Except, that is, when the stage version is as smartly reinvented as “The Ladykillers.” Graham Linehan’s sharp script re-imagines the 1955 horror-comedy movie as deliciously knowing farce. Armed with Michael Taylor’s laugh-inducing design and joyful acting, the show deserves a much longer life expectancy than that of its criminal characters, who come to wonderfully sticky ends.
The mechanics of Alexander Mackendrick’s Ealing comedy remain the same. It’s still the tale of a ramshackle group of criminals who, having planned to rob a security van at King’s Cross Station, move into preparation mode by taking up lodgings in the house of little old lady Mrs. Wilberforce (Maria Warren) under the guise of being members of a string quintet.
Everything goes according to plan. They even work the unwitting Mrs. Wilberforce into their plot, but when she finally tumbles to their dastardly deed, she’s consumed by indignation. In an effort to stop her going to police, they decide they’re going to have to live up to the play’s title.
Unlkie the Coen Brothers, who coarsened everything for their less-than-successful screen relocation, Linehan’s shift is merely one of tone. It’s as if he’s taken the material and moved it up a register into the sensibility of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Instead of damaging the material, it heightens it. Better still, like the stage version of “The 39 Steps” (still running in the West End after five years) it welcomes the audience in on the joke. It’s an invitation immediately lapped up.
The principle is mostly: Out with uneasy creepiness, in with uproarious comedy. This much is signaled from the opening scene, in which we’re introduced to the higgledy-piggledy home alongside the railway. In the first of several visual coups, the sweet house-front wheels round to reveal a teetering pile of rooms at sea-sick angles with furniture that shudders and shakes alarmingly every time a train thunders to and from the station.
That degree of detailed exaggeration raises laughs from the get-go, and it’s mirrored in the playing. Professor Marcus, who masterminds the escapade, was played on screen by a ghoulish Alec Guinness. He’s replaced by preening Peter Capaldi, clearly convinced that he is the Napoleon of crime, only taller and comically unhinged.
With a sweep of his endlessly trailing scarf, he introduces his ill-assorted cohorts. More fully developed characters than in the film, they’re all given a degree of idiosyncrasy bordering on madness, which further helps to up the stakes.
Stephen Wight display a real gift for slapstick and making the most out of props, especially when they involves him popping uppers and downers, not to mention his character’s mania for cleaning. And although Ben Miller’s character has the fewest gags, he gets the most mileage out of them as a Romanian hard-nut on a rolling boil of barely contained fury.
Helmer Foley, best known as one half of comedy duo The Right Size (whose “The Play What I Wrote” transferred to Broadway), packs the action with visual gags and good-humored stage business including a homage to the Marx Borthers, with all five criminals revealed to be hiding in an improbably tiny cupboard.
He’s less good at punctuating the big moments. When one of the character falls from the roof beneath the scream of a train whistle, the moment is funny but the audience is left puzzled as to whether to laugh or applaud because the moment, unlike the character, is left hanging without a proper “button” or finish being added.
But although moments like that mean the ball is occasionally dropped, the show exudes comic confidence. On paper it looked like yet another lazy film-to-stage transfer. The gleefully silly production is wittier and altogether more fun than anyone expected.