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Madcap one-liners and prat-falls aplenty in reinvented classic

I n the west end of London, a huge old higgledy-piggledy house appears to have burst through its walls and been tilted to one side on its foundations and rests somewhat creakily on a post-war bomb-site.

As an image of a dusty old England fit to collapse, it couldn't be more perfect for Graham Linehan's new stage version of classic Ealing comedy, the Ladykillers, which arrives in Edinburgh on Monday prior to dates in Aberdeen and Glasgow.

This darkly comic yarn about a gang of villains who move into rooms in an eccentric old lady's dilapidated house close to the railway station in order to plan a security van heist has more than survived the translation. Much of this is down to Linehan's collaboration with director Sean Foley. Both, as Foley somewhat appropriately puts it, "have previous".

Linehan is the Dublin-born co-creator and co-writer with Arthur Matthews of seminal clerical comedy, Father Ted. Since that programme came to an end following the death of lead actor Dermot Morgan in 1998, Linehan has worked on numerous TV comedy shows, including Chris Morris's Jam, the Dylan Moran vehicle Black Books, and more recently The IT Crowd.

As one half of comic duo The Right Size, with performing partner Hamish McColl, Foley went from appearing in small shows on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to creating The Play What I Wrote. This smash-hit celebration of Morecambe and Wise transferred to Broadway along with an ever-changing roll-call of celebrity guests.

Combined, Linehan, Foley and William Rose's original story for Alexander Mackendrick's 1955 feature film starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers make for a kind of comedic supergroup.

"Our show's got a lot more jokes than in the film," Foley points out. "We weren't trying to be slavish and just rip off the existing work. We wanted to use it as a springboard to both homage the original, but also to take it elsewhere."

For Linehan too, "The film is great, and we all knew that, but there were enough possibilities to have fun with it, but stay true to the film's original intention. I'd seen the film a few times when I was younger, so my memories were very much down to the essentials. I remember my pleasure as a kid when I realised all these guys were going to be killed, and the fact that the old lady got away with the money. So that's obviously all there, but I think people would've been justified in being annoyed if we'd just repeated the film. You're not doing anyone any favours if you just put in things which worked in the original, but not for today."

This goes beyond Linehan's dialogue, as the wonderfully inventive heist scene testifies, and there is more to The Ladykillers than fun. As with Richard Bean's One Man, Two Guvnors, which relocates Goldoni's 18th-century comedy, The Servant of Two Masters, to 1960s Brighton, Linehan and Foley have fun with The Ladykillers' period setting. Out of this comes an extension of Robinson's original dissection of a little Britain awash with stereotypes who represent different strata of post-Second World War society.

Amid Linehan's madcap one-liners, there are prat-falls aplenty and a gang of villains with a full set of psychological tics that give things an increasingly manic edge. The robbers masquerade as a group of musicians, but are unable to play a note, and the reaction to the discordant din produced when they're forced to entertain their elderly landlady's gathering is enthusiastically summed up when one of them declares that "art is one of the primary pleasures afforded the middle classes". The fact this line elicited a round of applause during a matinee at London's Gielgud Theatre last April says much about the milieu the play depicts.

This new version of The Ladykillers also marks something of a reinvention of classic adaptations which the show's lead producers Fiery Angel have already explored with their portmanteau production of The 39 Steps with a cast of just three onstage. Such rendering of familiar yarns uses theatrical techniques more akin to fringe theatre, alternative cabaret and the TV comedy shows. Hybrids like this are far from new, as Foley explains.

"Shakespeare based most of his plays, his comedies especially, on already existing works," Foley says. "But he changed them and mixed them up so they had somewhere else to go."

W ith this in mind, this year Foley has also directed a new production of Joe Orton's final play, What the Butler Saw. Orton's subversive take on farce came from a thorough knowledge of classical comedy, which he then filtered through his own scurrilous 1960s sensibility. In 2013, Foley will be directing a new version of Thomas Middleton's Jacobean comedy, A Mad World My Masters. Foley's Royal Shakespeare Company production will update Middleton's play to a 1950s Soho populated by hostesses, jazz musicians and on-the-make racketeers.

"I think there's something about people wanting to watch good comedy and entertainment right now," Foley observes of the rise of post-modern populism. "But you have to try and re-invent things. It would be cynical to just tap into the nostalgia market. You have to give people a genuinely new experience with material that's familiar to them. So what we're doing with The Ladykillers. It's just a soup, really."

After The Ladykillers, then, could Foley see himself putting other Ealing comedies onstage?

"Probably not," he says, "but I'm sure someone will, as is the way of things when something becomes successful. Right now I'm sure there are producers all over London trying to figure out how to do The Man in the White Suit."

The Ladykillers, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, November 5-10; His Majesty's, Aberdeen, November 12- 17; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, November 19-24.

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