Bumbling Murderers, Power Moves, Raucous Rhymes: London Stage

The cast of "The Ladykillers" at the Gielgud Theatre in London. The stage comedy is based on a 1955 British film. Photographer: Hugo Glendinning/Cornershop PR via Bloomberg

The attempted murder of a vulnerable old lady is played for laughs. Brutal deaths are used to prompt chuckles. When times are tough, the tough turn to gallows humor.

Good for that, say I. “The Ladykillers,” a 1955 U.K. movie comedy masterpiece, has been adapted for the London stage and proves to be a belly-laugher.

Some bank robbers rent a shabby room near King’s Cross Station from sweet old Mrs. Wilberforce to carry out their next heist. They claim to be string players who want to practice a Boccherini quintet, much to her delight.

Just when they get the cash she uncovers their plot, and insists they go to the police. What can they do? It’s curtains for the old bird, or the game’s up. A hilarious cat’s cradle of complications ensue.

Writer Graham Linehan rethinks William Rose’s film script in terms of the broadest stage business. There’s far more slapstick and exaggeration. The old lady is dottier. The stupid crook is even stupider. The gentleman crook, Major Courtney, turns out to be a sweet-natured transvestite.

If the strange, dream-like quality of the film’s humor is lost, the gain is a fast black farce of banging doors and split-second timing.

Musical Crooks

It all works handsomely in Sean Foley’s production, which is set in the 1950s and full of slick physical routines. When the crooks are forced to give a musical performance in front of a gaggle of Mrs. Wilberforce’s wittering old friends, the chief criminal warns them that it will sound very modern, “even insane.” The crooks scrape and pluck randomly with gusto. The ladies dutifully clap.

“Being fooled by contemporary art is one of the pleasures of the middle classes,” says the leader with a big wink at the audience.

Michael Taylor’s multilevel set is a fantasia on a subsiding Victorian villa, with crazily sloping walls, terrible plumbing and tassels everywhere. It turns around to reveal a few clever visual gags.

The acting is pitched high, and sustained well. Marcia Warren holds it together as the linchpin Mrs. Wilberforce. Her shuffling little steps and forgetful hesitations are a delight. Peter Capaldi is pop-eyed and semi-insane as the gang leader Professor Marcus, and Clive Rowe steals his scene as the gormless lunk One-Round.

A trip to the gallows has never been so much fun.

Rating: ***.

Grandage’s Adieu

For his final production as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, Michael Grandage has chosen Shakespeare’s “Richard II.” It’s about a king who struggles to keep hold of his crown and his power. Let’s hope Grandage isn’t having second thoughts.

He has done a terrific job at the helm of the Donmar, and he finishes on a high. His taut, straightforward production looks gorgeous on a split-level set (Richard Kent) decorated with gothic quatrefoils and splendid arches. The royal power games are played out with clarity, and the glories of the language allowed to shine.

That said, Eddie Redmayne (“My Week With Marilyn”) doesn’t quite step up to the plate as Richard. He’s good at the febrile despair of the deposed king. He also tends to chew open-mouthed when not speaking, and uses flappy explanatory hand gestures as if he were modeling every noun in pieces of clay. If he can improve his technique, there may be a fascinating Richard waiting to come out.

Fortunately, he’s supported by a great cast, including Andrew Buchan as Richard’s energetic and bold rival Bolingbroke, and Ron Cook as a dithering Duke of York who wishes to be fair to all sides in the rebellion. Rating: **.

Aging Rappers

The female musical-cabaret trio Fascinating Aida has been offering smart satire, tuneful silliness and old-fashioned rudeness since 1983, and still feels as fresh as paint.

The group’s latest show takes their web-viral hit song “Cheap Flights” (8 million hits) as its title, and dishes up an entertaining mix of new songs and old favorites.

There’s a jolly Swiss waltz about taking an aged parent to a euthanasia clinic. There’s a terrific pattersong about a figure-conscious actress who wants children so she hires an orangutan to be her surrogate womb. The rhymes are far too rude to repeat here.

There’s an eye-watering oldsters’ rap, and a needle-sharp number about the financial crisis choreographed in the style of Bob Fosse. There are plenty of bittersweet thoughts on relationships and ageing too.

Peter Cook once referred to “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the second world war.”

Fascinating Aida may not prevent much either. You’ll howl with laughter as it’s happening though.

Rating: ****.

“The Ladykillers” is at the Gielgud Theatre, http://www.theladykillers.co.uk or +44-844-482-5138.

“Richard II” is at the Donmar, sponsored by Barclays Capital, http://www.donmarwarehouse.com or +44-844-871-7624.

“Cheap Flights” is at the Charing Cross Theatre through Jan. 7, 2012, http://www.charincrosstheatre.co.uk or +44-20-7478-0170.

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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