A classic British film comedy will be performed on stage this week when Shaftesbury Arts Centre’s music and drama group begin their four-night run of ‘The Ladykillers’ on Wednesday.
“I saw it in London some years ago and I liked it. Then it became available to do as an amateur production,” explained Director Bryan Farrell, during a break from rehearsals. “I thought about it for a long time and thought ‘why not?’ It’s something different. No one seems to do it.”
There’s a great deal of affection for this classic Ealing comedy. The film review website Rotten Tomatoes once gave it top marks – a rare 100% rating based on reviews. “It was voted one of the fifteen best British films ever and one of the top ten funniest British films,” Bryan added.
The 1955 original starred Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Jack Warner. “I was brought up watching the film on Sunday afternoons for years and years. It is ingrained in you,” said Bryan. And he’s made sure the local cast of this stage play have seen the performance that wowed generations of film critics. “They’ve had to watch it a few times. We had a film showing here at the Arts Centre and the DVD has been pushed around for everybody to look at. Some people have seen it many times.”
Don’t be put off if, like Bryan, you know nearly every line from the film. Actor Jerome Swan, who plays Alec Guinness’ movie character Professor Marcus, says that the plot remains the same but there are some notable differences between cinema and stage versions. “This is a theatre production. It’s not a film and we can’t do it in the same way. I would like people to think of it as quite separate,” Jerome said.
The play has been adapted by writer Graham Linehan. He was responsible for the hit TV comedies ‘The IT Crowd’ and ‘Father Ted’. Jerome says that Linehan has written lines that work better in front of a live theatre audience. “The characters explain themselves more than they would do in the original.”
The play opens as a little old lady, Mrs Wilberforce, chats to a constable. The widow, played by Anthea Smith, has a furtive imagination. She often wastes police time, so the copper humours her.
Anthea plays the female lead impeccably well. She portrays a hesitant old woman who gets flustered, rather like the Coronation Street character Mavis did. “I realised that she was a little old lady and there aren’t that many little old ladies that I can remember in film or on the stage that I’ve seen. So I’ve more or less had to create it myself,” said Anthea.
Mrs Wilberforce lives alone with her talking caged bird in a rundown house next to the railway at King’s Cross. She is approached by the leader of a bunch of five conmen, Professor Marcus. He wants to rent a room from Mrs Wilberforce because his gang needs to be close to the tracks, so they can pull off a robbery.
The railway features prominently in the Arts Centre’s well-staged production. The subsidence-ridden house shakes as trains pass through the tunnel beneath it. A railway signal is seen behind the house and remains a prominent reminder of why Mrs Wilberforce’s place is being used by Jerome’s unpleasant character, the Professor.
“He’s not nice. He is devious, superficial and deeply unpleasant. There is very little that is likeable about him at all,” said Jerome who has decided not to approach the role in the same way as the film star. “I think the trick is not to try and do it like Alec Guinness because that’s a recipe for failure.”
Throughout the play, Professor Marcus sports a long scarf, of Tom Baker-as-Doctor-Who-proportions. “That is a very key part of the performance, which is revealed as the play unfolds,” he said. Jerome’s performance is polished and impressive. His character morphs from an initially over polite, smarmy charmer to a calculating, evil and menacing conman.
Jerome’s pretend professor is joined by a mock Major who thinks on his feet and blusters his way out of being rumbled by nosey Mrs Wilberforce. In one scene, she asks ‘Major, where you were stationed during the war?’ The Major bats the question away with ‘Sorry, that’s classified’. Mark Boyden plays the Major as a nice-but-dim character with just a touch of Boris-style buffoonery. “I would say he is a sympathetic character and he is quite lovable,” said Mark.
The gang of five villains masquerade as musicians. Their pretend rehearsals provide cover for their plotting in the Professor’s rented trackside bedroom. Mrs Wilberforce is taken in by their clever scam at first, but following a series of mishaps she eventually rumbles the robbers. The police turn up and the audience is left wondering what will happen to the copper? Will the cornered crooks kill him? Or Mrs Wilberforce? Or both?
As director, Bryan has achieved his goal of staging a fast moving production. “Hopefully it’s fairly frantic and the thought that things are starting to go wrong is conveyed through the pace of the acting and the timing,” he said. A two-tiered set has been built to accommodate the action. But Bryan said Shaftesbury Arts Centre had to be creative with their staging.
“The play is designed for a much bigger and revolving stage. People who know the film will see the resemblance. We’ve also brought bits of the film into the play which aren’t in the script.”
The Ladykillers is a black comedy but Mark said it’s not depressing. “Don’t go thinking that this is going to be dark or quite miserable. There are nice tense moments in it but also there’s a lot of laughter. It’s fast moving, it’s witty, it’s lightly written and beautifully layered. It builds and there are just gorgeous caricatures,” Mark explained.
“I’m 56,” Mark continued. “ I saw the original as a teenager and I have memories in my head of the film. It never really struck me although I knew it was a classic. 35 years later, when I came to read through the stage adaptation I was not expecting to laugh that much.”
Anthea agrees that the show is funny and she jumped at the chance to take the female lead. “I enjoy doing comedy. I don’t think I would be much good as a straight actor,” she laughed. And that’s the reaction that Bryan wants. He wants the Arts Centre’s audience beaming as they file out onto Bell Street. “They’ll feel entertained and with a smile on their faces.”
The effort that the actors and backstage crew have put into this production should be recognised. An old-fashioned trunk-style suitcase is important to the plot. Incredibly, Jerome drove all the way to Birmingham to pick up the perfect prop. While the volunteers’ commitment required to stage this show will be obvious, the extra work undertaken, like making that 260-mile round-trip, won’t be apparent to audiences.
The Ladykillers opens on Wednesday, 17th October at 7.30pm and runs until Saturday 20th October. Tickets are available from the Arts Centre box office or online at ShaftesburyArtsCentre.org.uk.