Farce Poetica: Andrew Billen Revels in a High - Spirited Ealing Comedy Revival
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
Gielgud Theatre, London WI
Graham Linehan, who has turned Alexander Mackendrick's 1955 film The Ladykillers into a West End farce, is the saviour of studio-based situation comedy on television. As laughter tracks went out of fashion and the mock documentary style took over, the creator of Father Ted ploughed on and kept making studio audiences laugh with Black Books and The IT Crowd. It is fitting that he should seek to liberate on to the stage an old Ealing comedy about a group of bank robbers brought down by a sweet old woman from unwatched box sets and exaggerated cineaste deference.
His resuscitation is about eight-tenths successful and if the laughs from his latest live audiences never quite reach hysteria, this La-dykillers certainly creates enough goodwill in the theatre to make the evening appear a genuine treat. The film is surprisingly unfocused -its writer, William Rose, literally dreamed the plot- and Linehan has done much to tighten its shots. Gone are the outside diversions: no Frankie Howerd, no horse, no apple cart. Instead, the action is confined to the good widow Wilberforce's rambling King's Cross house. It is, more than in the film, propelled by character. The gangs' personalities are much more fleshed out; the major, for instance, is no longer just a coward but a coward who would like, but does not dare, to wear women's dresses.
Farce, however, relies on the tension be tween a controlling personality and anarchy and Linehan's insight was to realise that Profes sor Marcus, the brains of the heist, played in the movie by Alec Guinness, is the supreme con trol freak, a man who compares his plans for the heist to art. For him, using Mrs Wilberforce as the crooks' unwitting bagman and alibi is the final flourish of genius. Peter Capaldi, garbed in an intellectual's overlong scarf - which is, of course, his noose - is exceptional as the profes sor, throwing himself over the stage in an effort to preserve his masterpiece. He is mad and bad. His words pour like honey but from a mouth fixed in a grimace. Everything he does is in fused with menace, even his tea, which he takes with a "suspicion" of sugar. Capaldi's professor is a man who has won the battle to suppress his own nature and now fights a war against everyone else's. &
But the war cannot be won, for his lieutenants are hopeless: not just the lovely James Fleet's major but an idiot bruiser who cannot even remember his alias (Clive Rowe, not on form), a cockney lad addicted to pills (a more than adequate Stephen Wright) and a cynical Italian (Ben Miller, gamely refusing to upstage Capaldi) with poor idiomatic English and a reluctance to generate the necessary lies. …