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THE LADY KILLERS – REVIEW OF 2019 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

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The Lady Killers as a stage play has an impeccable pedigree and is presumably able to attract audiences to the theatre. And yet it has not been produced in North America. Tim Carroll, the Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, has put an end to that omission by bringing the play to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The Lady Killers started in 1955 as a movie from the famed Ealing Studios with Alec Guinness and has gained the status of a beloved classic. It was remade in 2004 into an American version with Tom Hanks and in 2011 William Rose’s original screenplay was adapted for the stage by Graham Linehan and it was a hit in London’s West End.

We have five loony misfits and petty criminals who want to achieve a major heist. They are led by the genius Professor Marcus (Damien Atkins) who wants to stage the robbery from the sinking house of an old lady, Mrs. Wilberforce (Chick Reid). The colourful five will pretend to be a string quintet. The other members of the quintet One-Round (Martin Happer) a doltish boxer who used to knock out opponents in the first round but switched to being knocked out himself as quickly and for more money. He plays the cello which he thinks should go under his chin like a violin.        

Major Courtney (Ric Reid) is nothing of the kind but he does have a peculiar attraction to dresses and a propensity to gaseous emissions. Louis (Steven Sutcliffe) is the quintet’s hit man and sadist but even he has his limits. Harry (Andrew Laurie) snorts drugs and pops pills not quite for headaches and has a great passion for cleanliness.

With the perfect alibi as musicians, the brilliant, fail-proof plan of “the professor” and a talented crew, success is guaranteed. And indeed they pull it off except for the escape from the wonderful, morally upright and ever so-kindly but not stupid at all Mrs. Wilberforce. There is only one way out: kill her.

Linehan has done a good adaptation of the movie script and left the rest to the director and cast. Tim Carroll has decided to turn the production into a farcical, slapstick comedy. Both those approaches require some tact and restraint. He has a fine cast but shows little restraint.

Professor Marcus wears a long scarf which drags on the floor. How many times can Mrs. Wilberforce step on it and have us find it funny? There is a blackboard in the room that the quintet is renting and it can be rolled around. It is and it hits Harry in the face very hard. You expect sadistic humour like that in a farce but, again, how many times can you whack the man in the face and still find it funny?

There are good lines and funny situations. Mrs. Wilberforce has invited her friends for tea and promised them a concert by the quintet. The poor chaps that can’t tell which side of the violin is up are forced to perform. They scratch and scrape their instruments and claim to have produced “modern music.”

There are good lines about the parakeet General Gordon who is ill and covered by a towel. Below him is an urn with the ashes of the late Mr. Wilberforce. All done well and producing genuine laughter.

The criminals have great difficulty remembering their assigned aliases especially One-Round who has been hit on the head far too many times and when a knife hits his skull it causes no brain damage. There is nothing to damage.

The cast from Chick Reid to all the criminals to the poor Constable Macdonald (Kristopher Bowman) who has to listen to Mrs. Wilberforce tell him that the local newsagent is a Nazi, do superb work. The problem is in the directing where Carroll goes overboard in the slapstick and farcical elements of the play.

Set Designer Judith Bowden scores a major success in her design of Mrs. Wilberforce’s house. On a revolving stage, we see a cross section of the house showing the rented room on the second floor, and the entrance way and kitchen on the main floor. The stage revolves and we see the front of the house and then the side. The house plays an important role in the play and the design is simply masterful. 

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The Ladykillers by Graham Linehan adapted from the screenplay by William Rose continues in repertory until October 12, 2019 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.