A cast of celebs fails to bring any oomph to The Ladykillers

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

The Ladykillers

Vaudeville, until 26 October

Circle Mirror Transformation

Rose Lipman Building, until 3 August

The Ladykillers is back. Sean Foley’s adaptation of the classic Ealing comedy introduces us to a crew of villains who stage a train heist while lodging in the house of a sweet old lady. She discovers their crime and when they try to bump her off she proves indestructible. The 1955 movie makes a huge effort to manage the plot’s credibility. The audience is never quite sure if this is a criminal gang in a comic predicament or comic gang in a criminal one. Sean Foley abjures such nuances and gives us a bunch of clowns in a two-hour slapstick routine. This approach deprives the tale of all its subtlety and shadowy strangeness. Michael Taylor’s complex, expressionist design adds to the sense of artifice.

A cast of celebs compete to get the most laughs. The lead is played by John Gordon Sinclair, whose charm is a tad perfunctory (but at least his English accent is beginning to sound slightly English). Simon Day is pleasantly silly playing a corrupt army officer. Ralf Little bats his eyelids winsomely as a lanky young teddyboy, while Con O’Neill stomps and rages as the token Mafioso but his anger seems downright weird rather than funny. Chris McCalphy plays a violent bruiser as if he were understudying Bungle from Rainbow. Only Angela Thorne, as the old lady, has the sense to perform it as a straight drama and she reaches for emotion rather than giggles.

A lengthy tour has taken much of the oomph and freshness from this show. Tired mannerisms are creeping in all over the place. And the curtain call, which I imagine the actors devised for themselves, is like a playlet in its own right with the performers taking turns to emerge from behind bits of furniture and handing each other flowers before forming up for a group photograph. I wonder if this show has the right equipment to scale the West End peaks in mid-summer? The writer is unknown, the material is obscure, the title smacks of Peter Sutcliffe, and the cast, though popular at home, are hardly international stars. Why would an American buy a ticket, let alone a Japanese or a Brazilian?

Excellent news from the Royal Court. The theatre has decamped from its citadel of high art in Sloane Square and is trying to bring drama to plebs like me who live in east London. A pop-up venue has been thrown together at a council-run heap of bricks which bears the splendidly morose name ‘Rose Lipman Building’. So much for the good news. The play Circle Mirror Transformation, by the award-laden American Annie Baker, is quite a challenge. The opaque and arty title announces straight off that this is a work that will have no truck with popularity. Nor will it make any effort to gratify, inform or entertain anyone at all. The script carries a narky message from on high. ‘Please heed the pauses and the silences,’ orders Ms Baker. ‘They are of great importance and every one of them was placed in the script with extreme care.’ That’s not all. ‘I hope you will portray these characters with compassion. They are not fools. And if you ask me, I think Marty’s a great teacher.’ So she’s worried Marty may come across a lousy teacher? She’s on to something there.

Marty lives in a brain-dead American suburb where she organises an acting workshop for people who aren’t interested in acting. Instead her recruits are asked to sit in circles reminiscing, meditating, free-associating, role-playing, improvising dialogue and twirling a hula-hoop around their waists — the kind of thing top Ministry of Defence officials do during their team-building awaydays. Very little happens. A romance between two members of the troupe flourishes and expires with much bitterness on both sides. The miracle is that the show works extremely well.

The director James Macdonald approaches the script with enormous skill and sensitivity. He obeys Ms Baker’s hoity-toity warnings about pauses and silences and the result is amazingly close to real life. The atmosphere is vapid and airless at times but the slow-burning subtleties of the script come across powerfully.  A top-notch group of performers, led by Imelda Staunton, make the drab, dim-witted characters seem sympathetic and engaging. Toby Jones is nerdily marvellous playing a divorced geek named Schultz who falls for Fenella Woolgar’s sexy and elegant Theresa. I was delighted by this production. I hope the Royal Court repeats the experiment and spreads its great resources farther and wider. A zippier, nippier play would be welcome next time. And perhaps they can find a less pompous writer too. That shouldn’t be hard.

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