On the brink of psychosis: Peter Capaldi as Professor Marcus in "The Ladykillers"
Time was when successful plays used to metamorphose into films. Nowadays it goes the other way, as commercial theatres search for material familiar enough to lure TV stars to tread the boards. The Ladykillers at the Gielgud is one of around a dozen in this category in the West End, from the relentlessly popular Mamma Mia! to The 39 Steps.
If there is one sort of cinema classic you might feel it takes brass nerve to reinvent, an Ealing comedy would be top of the league. The memory of Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom and Alec Guinness is indelible as the world's most ill-assorted gangsters planning a heist, thwarted by a little old lady who annoyingly insists on morality and proper observance of tea-time.
Peter Capaldi, foul-mouthed terror of the Labour backbenches in The Thick of It, is manically reincarnated as dastardly Professor Marcus, full of his own verbose brilliance and permanently frustrated by the frailties of his jailbird gang. The joy and terror of true black comedy is that we have to feel uneasy at the murderousness at the same time as gasping for laughter. Capaldi has just the right air of a man teetering on the brink of psychosis, while remembering his manners. For what, as he plaintively asks Mrs Wilberforce, has he done wrong — apart from the small matter of an armed robbery?
Director Sean Foley has wisely steered away from merely recreating the cinema version, but acknowledges its influence. A few speeches and catch-phrases survive and a projection of those lovely old cinematic fire-curtains, bearing the word "Intermission", descends to keep up the nostalgia.
Truly, this is premier cru stage comedy, with a blackboard routinely being spun to knock out some unfortunate criminal standing nearby, nimble antics galore and chairs and tables sliding across the floor when the trains thunder past making the cast judder. At one point, all five end up squashed into a cupboard whose doors fly open in the presence of PC Plod, to reveal the gang stashed, like pilchards in a tin. "I can explain," says the professor, whose sophistry is as dazzling as his companions are maladroit.