Review: The Ladykillers

In a way, Graham Linehan’s adaptation of classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers is a victim of its own culture. Its sharp twists, top-notch acting, skilful caricaturing and staggering design are a winning combination in themselves, but, through no fault of its own, its plot and even humour recalls every popular heist-gone-wrong comedy or crime drama in the book, all of which may have taken a leaf from the 1955 Alec Guinness film.

The poor planning and rampant cynicism in Reservoir Dogs and The Departed – both remakes themselves – come to mind, and it could even be an Italian Job, with its mafiosi-esque character, fatuous stateliness and double entre laden slapstick. Little wonder, perhaps, that Linehan was once a film critic.

But if you put all deja vu aside, The Ladykillers is very good for what it is – another well-made chapter in a tried-and-trusted genre. It sticks with the recent “one gender trend” of NI Theatre, following in the footsteps of an all-female Shakespeare and an all-male Wilde by turning the sex of its five thieves posing as classical musicians on its head.
As with those works, however, there is nothing controversial in the casting - any political statements or themes are in script and execution. It’s not about the tag of being all male or all female, it’s about what the actors can do, and do well.

When we begin, Zia Bergin-Holly’s deliberately dreary lighting points to vitality ebbing away from poor old Mrs Wilberforce (Stella McCusker). She’s a regimented woman, living in the most oddball of houses right beside a railway line (a near-masterpiece of two-tiered design from Stuart Marshall). Someone happy enough to indulge in whatever comforts she has, like the chirpy parrot we hear but don’t see.
Until the hyperactive Professor Marcus (Abigail McGibbon) and her four comrades in crime, the European Louis (Maria Connolly), the cockney Harry (Julie Maxwell), war hero Major Courtney (Jo Donnelly) and the rather dim One Round (former Eastender Cheryl Fergison) arrive.

All are distinctive in accent and mannerism, all are singularly united in their goal – carry out a robbery, then use someone’s house as a base while pretending to entertain them. Except Mrs Wilberforce will not be as easily led as they think. Cue enough twists, turns, laughter and trouble to shake the foundations of the house and Belfast’s Lyric Theatre itself.

Watching the professor try and fail to straighten a lopsided wall picture of the Titanic early on subtly hints at the prideful control that will be exposed as complacent folly, and quite painfully so, in the hijinks that follow. Indulgence, frustration, status, egotism and artistic pretence are all highlighted, ridiculed even, in a production that overcomes the patchiness of its first act to flow with liberty and belief in its second.

When director Jimmy Fay plays to Linehan’s sitcom strengths of frantic idiosyncracy with thoughtful interludes, which is most often, The Ladykillers really thrives, and so does its cast.
Especially Cheryl Fergison and Jo Donnelly. The former is, give or take a Y chromosome, Benny Hill meets Father Dougal, a fine comic creation. The latter is not so much a war hero as an anti-war hero, a rather hilarious emblem of creepy, sexually ambiguous timidity burdened by the perpetual mistrust and uncertainty in Roald Dahl’s Captain Hardcastle.

It might be the performance of Donnelly’s career - and a monument to the entertaining mayhem that unfolds in the lives of these Ladykillers.

Simon Fallaha

The Ladykillers ran at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. For more info go to Photo: Steffan Hill Photography

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