The Ladykillers, Salisbury Playhouse

SOMETIMES you want to be challenged in the theatre, and sometimes you want to be entertained. And right now, in a world rattled by natural catastrophes, political paranoia and sexual scandals, many people just want a good night out with a lot of laughs.

Graham Linehan’s play, The Ladykillers, based on the hit Ealing comedy film of the 1950s, fits the bill. It is full of laughs, with a dotty plot, some evil villains, a delightful old lady and a jolly ending.

It creaks like an old barn in a high wind, but that’s the point really. It is a play set squarely in the mid-1950s, at a time when British quirks and eccentricities were still celebrated, when the make-do-and-mend days of rationing were a recent memory, and most things could be resolved over a nice cup of tea.

Mrs Wilberforce (Ann Penfold) is to all appearances a sweet little old lady with a sick parrot, a dead husband and a house shaking to its foundations every time the Newcastle train pulls out of Kings Cross Station.

She has a room to let and welcomes her new lodger, charming Professor Marcus (Steven Elliott), with a group of musician friends who will be rehearsing in the upstairs room. What could possibly go wrong? Why would she suspect a cultured professional man?

It doesn’t matter that his quartet of “musicians” have about as much knowledge of music or skill at playing their instruments as my terrier has of the Third Law of Thermodynamics. Mrs Wilberforce wants to believe that her home is now the rehearsal room of a string quartet, and accepts that even the blundering giant ex-boxer One Round (a hilarious but oddly touching performance by Damian Williams) is a gifted cellist.

It’s all totally implausible of course – why is a Romanian knife-throwing hit-man (Anthony Dunn) called Louis Harvey rather than something Romanian, how did the neurotic pill-popping Harry (Sam Lupton) ever get involved with a sophisticated criminal like the Professor, and how would a cross-dressing cowardly bogus Major (Graham Seed, Nigel Pargeter from The Archers, having another deadly encounter with a roof) be in the same gang as the ruthless Louis?

Steven Elliott has great fun as the Professor, the role played by Alec Guinness in the film. Superficially charming and smooth, he reveals his sinister side – but perhaps his finest scene is as the conductor-composer in the “concert” for Mrs Wilberforce’s friends (a community chorus of local women in very 1950s coats and hats).

In some ways the star of the show is the revolving set by Foxton – it’s a masterpiece of crumbling brickwork, railway signals, slippery roof tiles, dodgy chimneys and a point perfect faded 1950s house with wonky pictures, dainty china and unreliable wiring.

Director Peter Rowe and his cast give this period piece the energy and commitment it deserves – they play their parts with conviction and the brilliant set keeps the action literally moving along.

The Ladykillers is at Salisbury Playhouse until 18th November.


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