Time was when successful plays used to metamorphose into films. Nowadays it goes the other way, as commercial theatres search for material familiar enough to lure TV stars to tread the boards. The Ladykillers at the Gielgud is one of around a dozen in this category in the West End, from the relentlessly popular Mamma Mia! to The 39 Steps.
If there is one sort of cinema classic you might feel it takes brass nerve to reinvent, an Ealing comedy would be top of the league. The memory of Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom and Alec Guinness is indelible as the world’s most ill-assorted gangsters planning a heist, thwarted by a little old lady who annoyingly insists on morality and proper observance of tea-time.
Peter Capaldi, foul-mouthed terror of the Labour backbenches in The Thick of It, is manically reincarnated as dastardly Professor Marcus, full of his own verbose brilliance and permanently frustrated by the frailties of his jailbird gang. The joy and terror of true black comedy is that we have to feel uneasy at the murderousness at the same time as gasping for laughter. Capaldi has just the right air of a man teetering on the brink of psychosis, while remembering his manners. For what, as he plaintively asks Mrs Wilberforce, has he done wrong — apart from the small matter of an armed robbery?
Director Sean Foley has wisely steered away from merely recreating the cinema version, but acknowledges its influence. A few speeches and catch-phrases survive and a projection of those lovely old cinematic fire-curtains, bearing the word “Intermission”, descends to keep up the nostalgia.
Truly, this is premier cru stage comedy, with a blackboard routinely being spun to knock out some unfortunate criminal standing nearby, nimble antics galore and chairs and tables sliding across the floor when the trains thunder past making the cast judder. At one point, all five end up squashed into a cupboard whose doors fly open in the presence of PC Plod, to reveal the gang stashed, like pilchards in a tin. “I can explain,” says the professor, whose sophistry is as dazzling as his companions are maladroit.
The casting is impeccable: James Fleet, who excels in a peculiarly British greasy nervousness, like Basil Fawlty with a prison record, is as uneasily conflicted as only a transvestite con-man could be. Ben Miller’s pill-popping Louis is a thoroughly loveable rogue. But the crux of the story is dotty Mrs Wilberforce and Marcia Warren turns in a perfectly controlled performance, which gives old ladies everywhere hope that they can somehow triumph over penury, officialdom — and, of course, armed gangs.
This is also an occasion where the special effects and set designers deserve an extra round of applause. The Ladykillers offers pyrotechnics with a purpose and the combination of brilliant mechanicals (the police chase of the bank robbers is represented by remote control toy cars traversing a wall at glacial speed) and the pace is just on the manageable side of manic.
It slows down a bit in the last 20 minutes, not least due to the dramatic requirement of dispatching most of the cast by means of passing goods trains and freakish homicides, but leaves you with a feeling that you’ve seen a comedy almost devoid of error — and a mighty stitch in the side.
Down at the National, the real Comedy of Errors has Lenny Henry as one of the lost twins, stranded in a dream-nightmare of mistaken identity and multiple confusions. Henry put up a manful performance as Othello when he turned from TV comedy to tragedy, and the National has had the obvious idea of letting Lenny be funny again. It’s not his fault, but the result is a sporadically amusing mess.
It looks as if the National, having had an exceptionally good run topped by One Man, Two Guvnors, has decided that the recipe works so well that it might as well repeat it to jazz up the young bard’s Florentine farce. Alas, it makes a rather overwrought plot even harder to understand than the original — and let’s just say that Shakespeare was still learning how to do exposition when he wrote the Comedy. I felt fully confused about relations between Ephesus and Syracuse, or what beef the two cities have with one another. That’s even before everyone gets mixed up.
As the two masters, Henry’s broad-beamed Antipholus and Chris Jarman as his twin are well-matched creators of unknowing chaos, though the broader belly-laughs are provided by their hapless twin-servants in nylon Arsenal T-shirts, suffering the sharp end of their bosses’ misfortune and the occasional unintended erotic treat. The director Dominic Cooke, on loan from the Royal Court, lays on the multi-culti attitudes a bit thick — there’s such a range of patois that Ephesus seems to have turned into an offshoot of sundry bits of Africa, coupled with the Caribbean, which adds about two more layers of bewilderment than the play is offering already.
Still, it romps along, not least thanks to the fabulous made-in-Essex performances of Adriana (Claudie Blakley) and her sister (Michelle Terry). The two manage to translate blank verse into Estuary English with droll sensitivity for the double-entendres which survive the passage of centuries. “Can either of you gentlemen tell me which one I dined with last night?” inquires Adriana nervously, as well she might, having thrown herself at her husband’s brother. Cooke gives a piece which can be trite some welly, but doesn’t know when to stop offering too much of a good thing.
We end up with men in white coats chasing characters round the stage. I’d say that’s a definite sign that things have got out of hand. The play’s the thing, even when it’s played for laughs.