The Ladykillers at The Shaw Festival – A Review

The original “mandate” of The Shaw Festival was to produce the work of the eponymous playwright. That was broadened to include any work written in his lifetime, which conveniently enough was quite long (he died in 1950). Eventually, that was tweaked to allow new Canadian plays to be showcased. Now that Tim Carroll is Artistic Director, any semblance of a mandate is a mere memory; he even managed to sneak a little Shakespeare in last season. Now programming at Shaw has come to resemble nothing so much as that of a typical American regional rep company. Something has been lost. Then again, something has been gained.

A case in point is the North American premiere of Graham Linehan’s light-as-air 2011 comedy, The Ladykillers on the stage of the Festival Theatre. In a way it’s surprising that it took so long to cross the pond. I suspect potential producers were put off by the fear that it would be compared unfavorably to the 1955 Alec Guinness film of the same name. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that it doesn’t come close to erasing the memory of that classic, but to its credit it doesn’t really try. Taken on its own terms, it’s a pleasantly amusing piece of escapist theatre and if it reminds you to rewatch the Guinness film one more time so much the better. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

For those whose education has been sadly lacking, The Ladykillers tells the tale of an oh-so-British gang of crooks under the guidance of the evil genius Professor Marcus (Damien Atkins in the Guinness role) who are planning a cunningly clever train robbery at the Kings Cross station. To cover their nefarious activities, the Professor rents a room from the elderly widow Mrs. Wilberforce whose tumbledown house is perched above a railway tunnel near the scene of the projected crime. Their cover story is that they are an ardent group of amateur musicians whose string quartet is in need of a private, very private, rehearsal space. The beauty part is that Mrs. W, unwittingly, picks up the “lolly” and delivers to her house.

All goes swimmingly until the cello case containing the loot accidently bursts open and scatters money all over the living room. There’s nothing for it: Mrs. Wilburforce must go. In the end, she’s the only one left standing.

Linehan has done a very good job of solving the problem of transposing the film to the stage. He has devised some ingenious new ways for the crooks to kill each other off, and he has added some clever character traits for some of them. Major Courtney (Ric Reid) has a very funny women’s clothes fetish, the Romanian gangster Louis (Steven Sutcliffe) has an old lady phobia, and One-Round (Martin Happer), the monumentally stupid enforcer of the gang, actually learns a bit on the cello.

Tim Carroll has directed with a light touch. The only overt homage to the original film I noticed was the way Professor Marcus’ silhouette looms menacingly on the frosted glass of Mrs. W’s front door as he makes his entrance. One of Carroll’s best conceits is to have the criminals discuss the manifold shortcomings of old people while looking directly at the Festival’s aged audience.

The cast is uniformly excellent, but the greatest performance of the evening is provided by Judith Bowen’s incredible set, easily the best I have seen at either of Ontario’s major festivals. It is a multilevel masterpiece set on a revolve that spins through 360 degrees several times during the play and the cast seemingly uses every square inch of its many facets. Every time a train goes through the tunnel below it shakes, rattles, and rolls wonderfully, making its odd angles and crooked pictures utterly believable.

Damien Atkins is emerging as a most engaging comic leading man and, mercifully, he makes no attempt to mimic the great Guinness. He milks beautifully a recurring (and crucial) gag in which Mrs. W steps on his incredibly long scarf, and he uses a wonderfully theatrical trick of dropping his voice an octave to get a laugh. Of the other crooks, I was most taken by Martin Happer’s rendition of the hulking simpleton One-Round. Chick Reid may be too young and too beautiful to be the ideal Mrs. Wilberforce, but her engaging performance quickly puts such qualms to rest.

I am sure there will be those who will dismiss The Ladykillers as inconsequential fluff that is beneath the high ideals of the Shaw Festival, but I doubt anyone in the audience when I saw it would agree. And besides, even high-minded festivals have to pay the bills.

The Ladykillers runs through October 12, 2019

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