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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Ladykillers
Gielgud Theatre Winter 2011-2012; Vaudeville Theatre Summer-Autumn 2013

(The 2013 run had a new cast)

This leisurely little comedy offers a modest share of chuckles, but isn't the hilarious romp fans of the 1955 film may hope for. 

Like William Rose's original screenplay, playwright Graham Linehan tells of a motley gang of eccentric criminals who use a rented room in a sweet little old lady's home to plan a robbery. Improbably they get away with it, but then she finds out and they have to deal with her, which proves comically more difficult.

The characters are, of course, all one-note stereotypes – the dumb one, the nervous one, the bloodthirsty one, the mad genius leader – and the comedy, like that of much TV writing, consists largely of running gags and catchphrases. One keeps getting hit in the head by opening doors or moving props, one keeps asking (in the same words) to be reminded of his alias, and so on.

Director Sean Foley tries to fill the quiet spaces with extraneous gags, but they are for the most part derivative. Too much of the show has a second-hand feel about it, not because it's replaying an old story, but because it's recycling old jokes, and they don't play as homages to the Marx Brothers or salutes to silent comedies, but just as seen-it-all-before tired material with too little in the way of original twists or freshness.

There's the occasional good line – 'Being fooled by art is one of the primary pleasures of the middle classes' – but also jokes far more ancient than the film – 'Poverty is no disgrace.' - 'No, but it's a damn nuisance'. 

Marcia Warren could play dotty old ladies in her sleep, and watching the quiet ease with which she walks through the play is one of its greatest pleasures – especially since some of the others are too visibly working hard at being funny. (Seeing the work of making comedy doesn't spoil it, but not seeing it enhances it; the greatest comedians are the ones who seem to be doing it without trying.) 

Peter Capaldi as the mad leader and Ben Miller as the bloodthirsty one get their share of chuckles, but you see them pushing for them; Clive Rowe as the dumb one and James Fleet as the nervous one either don't have to work so hard or are more adept at hiding the effort. 

Reduce your expectations and you can have a pleasant enough time with The Ladykillers, about as much as you might get from an evening of TV sitcoms. If you want more, go back to the film or look elsewhere.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   The Ladykillers - Gielgud Theatre  2011

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