London is currently rediscovering the pleasures of the farce, albeit in a nostalgic fashion. With ‘Noises Off’ and the even more venerable ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors’ currently packing ’em in again, ‘The Ladykillers’ looked like it might be a step too far, even re-written from the 1955 film by Graham ‘Father Ted’ Lineham. But, seeing as it’s set on my home turf of King’s Cross, I thought I should check it out.
The first thing to get right is the casting; with Peter Capaldi replacing Alec Guinness and Marcia Warren taking over little old lady duties from the wonderful Katie Johnson, we’re in safe hands. When Professor Marcus first rings her doorbell, his Nosferatu-like shadow creeps across the glass. His gang of thieves masquerading as a string quintet are all superbly realised, and have to negotiate a startling revolving set that depicts the lop-sided house and the strange atmosphere of King’s Cross – the designer gets the details spot-on, right down to the drain-fed buddleia weeds springing out of the brickwork.
The robbery is handled with miniature cop cars and a train that chugs over the roof of the house – this is a slick, expensive production that thinks nothing of presenting us with the vast tunnels under the terminal for just a moment. The real pleasures are less in the broad slapstick (a revolving blackboard that repeatedly knocks a crook in the face becomes tiresome) but in moments of genuinely surreal dialogue. At one point, with a gaggle of old ladies at the door, a furious argument erupts about the correct definition of the phrase ‘tea-time’. Mrs Wilberforce’s diseased parrot General Gordon is described as looking like ‘a starving baby in a sock’, and a gangster with a cleaning fetish manages to hide a full-sized mop about his person.
There are plenty of other sight gags. The most peculiar moment arrives with all five gangsters squeezed into a tiny cupboard, unable to justify their presence there. Whenever a train passes the very house itself shifts with subsidence, disconcerting the crooks but not Mrs Wilberforce, who never gives an inch once the murders – the creepiest taking place in the dark with a cello string – start to decimate the gang.
Capaldi makes a rather fine substitute for Guinness, using his lanky form like a snake, twisting and insinuating himself into the home. Rather than being conked on the head by a railway signal, the Prof is doomed by the one item of clothing that has tied him to Mrs Wilberforce throughout – his lengthy scarf.