The Ladykillers is a comedy with a longevity almost as unexpected as the comic crime-gone-awry caper it details. One of the most successful of the Ealing Studio comedies of the post-war period (the other American audiences would be most familiar with would be The Lavender Hill Mob), the 1955 original was written by Bill Rose. Rose, who was born in America, wrote several screenplays for Ealing during his many years in Britain after the war, but he would have his biggest success in Hollywood in the 60s penning It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and wining an Oscar for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in 1967. The Ladykillers is a rather genteel comedy about a band of criminals who move into the home of an elderly woman while posing as a string quartet in order to plan their latest robbery. The elderly woman, Mrs. Wilberforce, unexpectedly gets pulled into the plot. Things eventually go awry and comedy ensues.
The Ladykillers has now made it onto the stage in London in an update by another well regarded comedy writer, Graham Linehan, the man behind Black Books and Father Ted. Linehan is a smart writer and he knows enough not to fill Rose’s original story with snide contemporary in-jokes or cynical references. And although the play is not adverse to slapstick, it's not simply about bungling incompetent crooks. The show is still genteel, especially compared with the kind of brazen gags that populate something like The Book of Mormon or any number of other successful contemporary U.S. stage comedies. But The Ladykillers is an absolute joy to watch even with a low shock value.
A big part of the success is Sean Foley’s direction of his excellent cast. Foley recognizes that this tale can handle a bit of broad acting, and he gives the cast just enough leeway to ham things up without it overpowering the show overall. No one is spitting out scenery, but it's broad enough to make the audience feel that everyone involved is having as much of a good time as they are. This great cast includes James Fleet, Peter Capaldi, Ben Miller, Clive Rowe, Stephen Wight and Marcia Warren as Mrs. Wilberforce. They revel in moments that provide arch commentary on the changing world of post-WW II Britain. One of my favorite such moments comes when the criminals are enlisted to perform a concert as the purported string quartet for a gathering of Mrs. Wilberforce's friends. It's an obvious ploy to be sure, but The Ladykillers is done so well and is so well meaning, it's impossible not to appreciate it. The show continues its run at the Gielgud Theater in London's West End into the New Year.