By Graham Linehan based on screenplay by William Rose
Vaudeville Theatre, Strand, London, WC2R 0NH
Writer Graham Linehan of Father Ted fame and director Sean Foley of The Play What I Wrote fame have adapted the classic Ealing Comedy and converted what was a wonderfully subtle, if macabre, comic gem into broad slapstick. For fans of Linehan and Foley, it's more of the same. For fans of the original movie, it's a travesty.
The argument will be made that it needs to be different from the movie, which is fine to an extent, but when you fillet the movie of everything which made it special and add nothing apart from Three Stooges cartoon violence, and knowing anachronisms of language of performance as per Little Britain, you have to ask why they couldn't they have fashioned something original. They are in the end just riding on the film's coat tails. This marks the return of the show to the West End following a national tour and a re-casting.
The tale of a shambolic criminal gang who occupy the upstairs room of a demure but feisty old lady's rickety house in Kings Cross and pose as a string quartet to cover a planned heist from the mail train, is rightly regarded as a high point in British film comedy. But it had more than comedy. In the expert hands of Alexander Mackendrick it not only had an expressionist sheen (not least Alec Guinness's portrayal of the ghoulish fake Professor), but also great tension. The tension stemmed from the audience's complicity in the con trick. You had to believe the old lady would fall for their scam. Here that simple point is thrown out the window and characters of the individual gang members are turned into broad music hall archetypes mugging for the audience's attention. The film was tight and perfectly paced. Here the focus is on each gang member's slapstick attempts to kill one another, which misses the point that it is actually about them being incapable of killing her.
The gang members are all re-written and given unnecessary back story so we get a crude closet transvestite, a young druggie who obsessively cleans, a brain-numbed ex-boxer and a "granny hater", which one presumes strikes a chord with the male undergraduate demographic. In a similar vein there's also cross-dressing old ladies a la Little Britain. The gloriously unhinged Professor Marcus is reduced here to a bumbling idiot struggling with his over-long scarf and John Gordon Sinclair is hopelessly at sea in the part.
The cod Major Courtney (played with comic brio by Cecil Parker in the film) is rendered by Simon Day into an am dram panto turn and the likeable lug One-Round is so broad he could be in children's theatre. Louis, the Romanian henchman who spouts Malapropisms, is another exercise of vocal strangulation from Con O'Neill.
Ralf Little redeems matters somewhat by bringing some nuance and a winning charm to the Peter Sellers role as the cockney spiv. The evening is rescued though by the great Angela Thorne (famous as Marjorie from the 1980s sitcom To The Manor Born) who is, as she might put it herself, "perfectly splendid" as Mrs Wilberforce.
Michael Taylor's amazing set has been rightly acclaimed. The rooms practically collapse into one another in a wonderfully skewed Dali-esque creation, which is all jaunty angles and topsy-turvy lines. One suspects that it was a better fit though in the Gielgud theatre, whereas here it is far too cramped. Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design and Scott Penrose's effects are also top class.