The Ladykillers at The Mayflower Theatre, Southampton (15/10/2012)

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This adaptation of The Ladykillers is one I had been looking forward to seeing ever since hearing of the initial West End run. Penned by Graham Linehan (arguably one of the finest TV comedy writers around today) and based on what is a truly classic British comedy, maybe the hype I had created for myself would not measure up to the real thing.

Fortunately, my worries were unfounded. The best way to approach the production is as a completely independent entity. The script is entirely different, bar one or two lines, to the original; the characters and plot merely a framework for Linehan to incorporate his own brand of humour. Here all the characters are amplified versions of the originals, almost caricatures of caricatures. Michele Dotrice possibly steals the show as the matronly but naive old woman Mrs. Wilberforce, unwittingly taking in a gang of criminals intending to plot and execute a heist using her and her home as part of the scheme.

As for the villains themselves Paul Brown makes an entirely convincing Professor Marcus, the mastermind behind the entire scheme, starting off cool and seemingly infallible before the incompetence of his accomplices and constant interruptions of Mrs. Wilberforce force him ever more maniacal. Clive Mantle’s Major Courtney is a hysterical performance with more than a hint of John Cleese and Shaun Williamson comes off well as intimidating continental gangster Louis. William Troughton plays youngest member of the gang Harry to near slapstick perfection; perhaps a tribute to Inspector Clouseau, a signature character of the late Peter Sellers who held this role in the original. The only part which falls ever so slightly short of the mark is Chris McCalphy’s portrayal of slow-witted former boxer One-Round, whose dumb guy act comes across as slightly forced throughout. It is however undeniable that a great proportion of the laughs come from the character’s blissful ignorance of how often he nearly gives the game away.

Michael Taylor’s set design is also worthy of note. The action has been mostly condensed from a few outdoor locations as well as in and around the old lady’s house to almost entirely inside the house. This means a few neat contraptions allowing for smooth transition between inside and outside, when characters repeatedly climb out of an upstairs window for example, have been masterfully incorporated. This is not to mention the lift away façade of the house, which has small model cars on tracks built in to allow a bird’s eye re-enactment of the robbery in miniature.

Script-wise the gag-heavy first half gives way partially in the second due to the darker nature of the plot; Mrs. Wilberforce becomes wise to their plan after it has been carried out and the gang decide the only way to escape with the money is by dispatching her. The series of attempted escapes with the money and double-crossings that follow does lead to more laughs, just not quite as thick and fast as earlier. Some of the running jokes do occasionally wear thin, notably the more slapstick elements such as Harry’s repeated mishaps with a rotating chalkboard and Mrs. Wilberforce’s uncanny ability to stand on the Professor’s scarf, as well as the aforementioned overplaying of One-Round’s stupidity.

Linehan has a self-confessed penchant for large comical moments and farcical style so this was never going to be an exception, and while some moments do feel tired on occasion this for the most part is a great tribute as well as competent standalone piece.

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