It’s an unlikely story. A handful of hardened burglars pull off an audacious robbery in Central London and even though the police receive a clear warning, they do nothing about it. I mean, who could imagine that happening in real life?
It is in fact a scenario dreamed up by the Ealing Films Comedy writer William Rose exactly 60 years ago. Indeed it’s so ancient, ‘The Lady Killers’ premiere coincided with the advent of ‘The Woodentops’ on children’s television.
The film is now a nostalgic national treasure, in which an eccentric, criminal mastermind – played by Alec Guinness – marshals a hopeless assortment of ne’er do wells (posing as a string quintet) to conduct a hugely successful bank job … only to be thwarted by their persistently inquisitive little old landlady, Mrs Wilberforce.
It’s such a charming, ingenious and loveable farce, it’s a matter of amazement that it’s taken six decades to appear on stage. Luckily the ‘Father Ted’ writer Graham Linehan was commissioned to adapt the screenplay for Liverpool and the West End, and now Mark Babych of the New Vic and Hull Truck has got his hands on it to spread the cheer even further….leaving the first night audience in fits.
The first set of full marks must surely go to designer Patrick Connellan. Having seen the intricate proscenium arch production, I was a little worried. But he’s miraculously created a multi-levelled, seedy, sit com set which works equally well in the round. It must have been a tall order.
Hoodlums need to hide; and Connellan provides them with a ramshackle warren of cupboards and trap doors, a working sash window and a steeply raked roof for their clambering capers….whilst still allowing the actors to relate to their 360 degree audience.
Andrew Pollard commands the cast wonderfully as the flawed genius Professor Marcus; slightly mad, decidedly smarmy and as oily as Guinness. His body seems to permanently be in a horrible, slow motion ballet; twisting and turning and always awkward.
He’s reunited with Michael Hugo as the continental assassin Louis; who Hugo plays with the terse voice and dour demeanour of Jose Mourinho after a series of heavy defeats.
There are suitably clichéd comedy turns from their colleagues in crime – and I took a particularly shine to Matthew Rixon as the allegedly ex-army conman, all charm and bluster, with an unhealthily obsessive interest in women’s clothing. His facial acting is a joy.
Anna Kirke puts in a lovely pivotal performance as the confused but courageous old dear whose suspicions about her new lodger are slowly aroused. It’s a classic, frail-but-feisty part and Anna’s got it to a ‘T’. And when her bevy of dubious old biddies turned up, the theatre erupted.
The one weakness? Well, for me it was the robbery itself. We don’t see it of course; even Patrick Connellan can’t conjure that. Babych’s very suitable solution is to place Pollard on a podium and have him conduct the operation from afar – accompanied by a cacophony of striving violins and sporadic sound effects.
The concept is fine, but frustratingly the random bangs and whistles don’t tell the story. A more literal soundscape with a clearer storyboard and snatches of conversation could have been more amusing and less bemusing. The New Vic sound team is superb…and there is time yet for them to have much more fun with this climactic moment.
It’s a great show, comfortably firm in its 50s footings and an absolute pleasure to watch. And I’m sure Mrs Wilberforce would be more than willing to lend London Metropolitan Police a hand with their investigations into the Hatton Gardens Heist.
Photo : Andrew Billington
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