Tuesday, May 01, 2012


The Ladykillers – Gielgud Theatre

The West End is filled will easy-money big stage productions of Hollywood hits, but at least The Ladykillers is slightly more risky material. Stories like Singin’ in the Rain and Top Hat are feel-good box office slam-dunks that you’d have to stage pretty sloppily not to hit the mark. But few West End headliners can claim to revolve around a gang of crooks and their inability to murder a kind old lady.

60 years on, The Ladykillers has lost none of its dark comic charm. It’s a very British film; one about flawed characters who are failures - villains who aren’t good at being villains. Graham Linehan, of Father Ted and IT Crowd fame, has elected, quite rightly, to avoid the easy route of putting the film on the stage line for line. Instead, he’s approached this the way a filmmaker might approach adapting a stage play for the screen and taken the opportunity to infuse it with new ideas and to explore angles untouched by the original.

With an expanded running time, Linehan builds the supporting parts into larger roles with greater comedic opportunities. Professor Marcus’ gang now includes a cross-dresser (Vicar of Dibley’s James Fleet) a pill-popper (up-and-comer Stephen Wright), an Eastern European with a child-hood fear of old Ladies (comedian Ben Miller) and a classic old-fashioned dunce (Clive Rowe).

The crux characters, the Professor (the Thick of It’s Peter Capaldi) and Mrs Wilberforce (theatre veteran Marcia Warren) remain largely unchanged. Capaldi is more energetic and slippery than Alec Guiness, but Warren seems to channel Katie Johnson perfectly, bringing the same harmless, doddery indomitable innocence that can cause havoc but receive no reproach. They’re the stars of the piece, for sure, although the ensemble is so perfect, they all deserve a slice of the credit.

The set is ingenious – a forced perspective interior that allow us to see the crooks in their room as well as Mrs Wilberforce pottering about the home, an ever approaching threat to their plans. But the home spins on its axis allowing us a view of the roof and the bedroom window, where many of the cast will meet their fate, and the front of the house, where, in one of the biggest laughs of the piece, the robbery will be played out – as toy cards running on tracks with police radio broadcasts.

There are many highlights; perhaps the best is the music concert, in which the crooks’ attempts to play music are successfully passed off by the Professor as an experimental music piece, leading to an applause-inciting line about the middle-classes love of fake art. The Ladykillers is a brilliant night out, and a great alternative to well-staged but artistically dead, money-hoarding big movie adaptations.

Bingo – New Vic Theatre

A sparsely staged character piece, Bingo centres on Will Shakespeare in his Twilight years, as he attempts to live a peaceful life in retirement. His dubious contentment (he is distant to his wife and daughter) is disrupted by a wealthy local landowner, who wishes to consolidate his lands, moving away small farms and replacing them with larger operations.

Shakespeare has invested in the local land, and agrees to support the plans if his income is guaranteed throughout the changes. But of course, the redistribution of land has a consequence to the people who currently live there. This leads to violence, causing Shakespeare to reflect negatively on the moral consequences of his life.

The idea is that as an artist, Shakespeare has led a comfortable life, a complacent one. That while he practiced his art, constructed tales and worlds in his theatre, he paid little heed to those suffering in the world, and the he himself has contributed to that suffering; indirectly through complacency, and now directly by protecting his interests.  He has aimed through his life for his work to have enriched the lives of men, yet his security has now cost men dearly.

It’s a situation that’s clearly designed to makes us consider society as a whole, and not just the bard. That capitalism forces people to behave in ways that are unavoidably self-serving and to the detriment of others. Shakespeare discovers that his wealth and security have devastating consequences to the people he knows and cares for. And he also comes to realise, reflective in his old age, that he has passed these problems onto the next generation.

Throughout the play, he is dismissive and rude to his daughter, and neglectful and distant from his wife, who remains unseen. Later, while drunk, Shakespeare simultaneously berates and apologises to his daughter, who he sees as superficial and grasping, a consequence of his trying to buy her love. It seems a cruel attack, yet events prove his reproaches to be accurate.

Shakespeare is played by Patrick Stewart, and his performance is as good as you’d expect. Despite being silent for many scenes, his resigned posture and weary, frail frame gives him a constant appearance of mourning, even when he’s actually doing very little.

While there are scenes that amuse (a drunken encounter with his rival Ben Johnson is particularly entertaining) the whole thing is undeniably a bit of a drag. It’s an intelligent and insightful play, and performed with a sensible economy on stage, but its glumness, and downbeat conclusion, leaves little room for hope. The issues that trouble the bard remain unresolved, and the suffering and cruelty around him is simply left to go on. An honest end, I daresay, just not all that fulfilling.

Swallows & Amazons – Vaudeville Theatre

I’m a big fan of Neil Hannon and his Divine Comedy, so this was pretty much a must for me. An adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s children’s classic, it might seem troublesome as it involves sail boats and islands and the outdoors. But it’s actually an ideal production project, because it’s a celebration of children’s imagination.

The National Theatre sets all its action in what appears to be an attic, with the children taking objects - bit of wood, streamers, a lifebelt – and using them to bring their adventures to life. It gives the whole effort a rather charming, homemade appeal, which is just as well – as if any parent would allow their children to sail a boat on their own these days!

I’ve always thought Neil Hannon was at best when working with a touch of literary pretension – as opposed to when he’s being earnest – and again it shows. His songs are infectious, catchy and often very funny indeed; his anthem for the Amazon pirates - “raised by our mum on the banks of the Amazon delta/ With only the clouds and a four-bedroom house for shelter” - is a particularly memorable toe-tapper. But there’s no grand orchestrations, the songs are arranged simply for a small band in keeping with the plays rather intimate presentation.

The kids are all played by rather youthful looking grown-ups, which doesn’t jar with proceedings much, despite the fact the youngest is also the biggest, and has a beard. Somehow actor Stewart Wright’s size manages to make his strops, his shyness and clumsiness that touch more funny.

Although special mention has to go to the gobby Blackett children, played by Celia Adams and
Sophie Waller, whose foot-stomping, gizzard-bothering Amazons found the most favour with the audience. They’re probably also a more recognisable character type for kids anyway, much more relatable than the old-school goodie-two-shoes Walker children.

Kids are probably the toughest audience to keep fixated, but with this cosy production, they were engrossed from the off. It was brought off with warmth and gentle humour, and had respect for the material and never cocked a sneer at the anachronisms of its time. It’s a wonderful celebration of the wonder and pleasures of play and imagination, and proof again that kids can love more, and deserve more, than noisy CGI robots.