The best ideas are the ones where you say to yourself, “Of course! That’s such an obvious thing to do. Why didn’t I think of it?” That’s the sort of idea playwright Graham Linehan had when he decided to adapt one of the best-loved – and best – Ealing comedies from the screen to the stage. It proved such a good idea that the professional production of The Ladykillers was an immediate success and it is a favourite with amateur companies.
Not that it is an easy play to put on. The set has got to include simultaneously two rooms, the street outside the front door and the roof beyond the window of one of the rooms, while the effects must convey a robbery that takes place offstage and the devastating – in every sense – presence of the main line from King’s Cross next door to the house where the action takes place. In this production, director Lucie Evans makes intelligent use of the assets of Ringwood School’s theatre, such as its wide stage, and cleverly minimises its limitations by using the front of the auditorium and curtains up the side of the stage to mask the sudden and final disappearance of certain characters.
Each of the five crooks who take a room in a little old lady’s house from which they plan a robbery has a well-defined character of his own. If anything, it adds to the play that they are so well-defined as to be almost caricatures. So Harry Robinson is a small-time crook who can only keep his cool by popping pills. John West conveys him so convincingly that it is easy to picture him selling nylons and off-ration petrol on street corners during the War (which finished only eleven years before the period in which the play is set). Louis Harvey is a sadist and a killer – he’s foreign – and Tim McConnell brings out not only the character’s sinister thuggery but somehow makes his comic lines fit with the rest of his portrayal.
Malcolm Hawker as the leader of the gang, Professor Marcus, dominates the stage and conveys the charming ingenuity of someone who always has an answer. He is also at the centre of most of the semi-slapstick ‘business’, which is well conceived by the director and equally well executed; the use of the cupboard is hilarious. Peter Ansell nails the character of Major Courtney: confused and nervous, and only really coming alive when remembering with dodgy pleasure how he dressed in women’s clothes to escape from a PoW camp.
It is a cast-iron certainty that, in the hands of a competent actor, the simple but lovable ‘One-Round’ will steal the show. Rich Bennett is a very competent actor – and he does. There is a nice cameo from Andrew Chappell as the kind and long-suffering PC Macdonald. Sally Whyte plays the little old lady, Mrs Wilberforce, and refers in her programme note to her character’s “wonderful mix of naivety, kindness and moral outrage”, all of which she brings out most effectively. She gives the character a faltering voice, which makes for some audibility problems; in fact, all the cast would benefit from more vigorous projection to overcome the theatre’s rather unfriendly acoustics.
The Ladykillers continues on 31 October and 1 November at 7.30pm and will provide you with a thoroughly entertaining evening.