Review: The Ladykillers at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Based on William Rose’s 1955 movie, The Ladykillers was adapted for the stage by Graham Linehan in 2011. A hilariously over the top and extremely British slapstick comedy, the play’s staged with great exuberance at the Gatehouse by the always entertaining Tower Theatre Company.

The story behind The Ladykillers is almost as much fun as the plot itself, which apparently came to screenwriter William Rose in a dream; he woke up in the middle of the night and told his wife, then went back to sleep – while she got up and wrote it all down so that she could remind him in the morning.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

Mrs Wilberforce is a little old lady who lives alone with her ailing parrot, General Gordon. When she rents her upstairs room to what she thinks is a group of classical musicians, little does she know they’re actually robbers planning a heist at Kings Cross. This is quite surprising – partly because Mrs Wilberforce usually sees conspiracy theories everywhere, but also because the eccentric Professor Marcus and his gang are particularly inept criminals. The stage is set for chaos, and this production certainly delivers – even the set seemed to be in on the joke, with Mrs Wilberforce’s front door frequently swinging open of its own accord.

That little issue aside, the set is impressive; stretching the full length of the substantial stage area at the Gatehouse, it allows us to see simultaneously into Mrs Wilberforce’s front room, the upstairs room and even, briefly, on to the roof. Everything in the house is a bit lop-sided (Mrs W unfortunately suffers from subsidence), and its proximity to the nearby railway line presents various comic opportunities in both set design and storyline.

The cast have a lot of fun with their characters, all of whom are entirely ridiculous in their own way. Alison Liney leads the way as the clueless yet indomitable Mrs Wilberforce, while Ed Malcomson channels Basil Fawlty as the artist and criminal “mastermind” Professor Marcus, desperately trying to hold his plan together despite the best efforts of his incompetent colleagues. Dan Usztan’s nice but dim One Round is a delight, and there’s some enjoyable physical comedy from pill-popping Harry, played by Samuel Currie-Smith. Completing the gang of misfits are Alex T Hornby as Louis, a brooding Romanian hitman, and Michael Bettell as nervous wreck (and closet cross-dresser), the Major.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

Like most farces, many of the jokes – and the play’s ending – can be anticipated, but that doesn’t make them any less fun to watch. There are also a few enjoyable digs at artistic pretension and the British obsession with class and social appearances (which landed particularly well with the North London audience). The Ladykillers is perfect light-hearted evening entertainment, with a reminder that there’s a little good in the worst of men – though it may just turn out to be their downfall.

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