The Ladykillers

This review of The Ladykillers first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.

'Do not put anything on the stage' and 'Keep off the stage', read two notices at the front. How fortunate that CoPs did not follow Noel Coward’s advice!

We had a delightful evening, professional, expert, capable, sharp, and intelligent. It was full of too many little nudges of wit to enumerate them all but CoPs know how to share a joke with the audience and do so with panache.

When the lights came up, accompanied by apt music from the late 50’s – Wonderful Copenhagen, Put Another Nickel In and so on – we were presented with a set entirely redolent of the time – pink bedcover, parrot’s cage, the broad stripes of the wallpaper. And they echoed the location – and Mrs Wilberforce’s subsequent description “I’ve got subsidence…”, with the pictures hanging all askew, the stripes and therefore walls leaning, all because the house was next to the line north of Kings Cross – a crucial feature of the plot.

The lighting was gentle, dim, beautifully managed and all of a piece with the set and production: the two rooms co- exist, one above the other, with a stairway and door intervening; as action moved from one to the other, so too the lighting focussed on each room. There was a marvellous moment when the gang were hiding upstairs: the lights went off but we could see them dimly standing like statues while the impending unsuccessful murder of Mrs Wilberforce went on in the room below – now brightly and sharply lit.

I had never seen the original film but had heard about it – and recently read the script, a beautifully written piece. The cast reproduced with alert accuracy every feature of that script, which is specific in its directions to the players.

I found the first half better than the second. The characters are developing their personalities richly – the suave and commanding Professor, the dense enforcer One Round, the deceptively compliant Mrs Wilberforce, the ostensibly orthodox and respectable Major with his obsession with women’s dresses, the enigmatic Louis – all performed and interacted stylishly and with strong distinctions between them.

The second act is harder to work effectively because there is so much happening on the stage. The outcome is perfect, the action difficult to make convincing or fluent – though perhaps fluency is an unreasonable ask for such a chaotic scenario.

The sequence of deaths as the gang, one by one, fall out of the window into the path of passing trains has its climax in the death of the Professor. This is marvellously dramatic, with the light of a train approaching us as it crushes him, the deed swathed in steam. This episode was particularly ingenious. Louis, I thought, was the most difficult character to depict. He has fewer clear lines in his role and he has to be characterised as an expert in driving for his part in the gang, distinct from the tough, though sometimes confused, others.

Mrs Wilberforce carried the play throughout, by combining the standard ‘little old lady’ persona with that of a highly perceptive woman, able to conceal the latter beneath the former and ultimately emerging as the only success. Jackie Lawn gave us plenty of impish moments as well – because she is the only character who shares the same knowledge as the audience have and is, effectively, winking at us through her lines.

She shows self-knowledge as well: I rejoiced when she approached the parrot with the line “... silly old bird talking to itself” - and did a double-take as she realised that the lines applied to herself. Her interaction with the Constable, a portrayal drawn with strong lines, acted as the opening and closing brackets of a highly entertaining narrative. A lovely evening.

Photographs by Steve Beeston.

The Ladykillers was written by Graham Linehan and directed by Barry Lee. The production was staged at The Little Theatre in 2017.