The Ladykillers| Auckland Theatre Company

Television sitcom writer Graham Linehan certainly has a flair for farce.

His refreshing version of the classic Ealing comedy by William Rose (originally starring Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness, and later remade by the Coen brothers with Tom Hanks) might not be as disturbing as the original – but The Ladykillers is black comedy at its best.

The story is simple. On post-war London, Mrs Louisa Wilberforce is your classic sweet little old lady who has a spare room to rent. While suspicious of all potential German affiliations (and perhaps those from Wales too) she is quick to welcome into her home Professor Marcus, a musician and purportedly “a gentleman” who seeks privacy for his eclectic string collaborators as they prepare for the performance of their lives. Of course it’s hardly a high class concert but a heist of the first order that requires their unsuspecting host to play a pivotal role in ensuring their success. But will she take the bait?

Expertly directed by Colin McColl and Cameron Rhodes, it’s a visual and verbal delight where scarves entangle, knives are flung, diseased parrots squawk out inappropriate comments, discordant harmonies are spontaneously improvised; and endless cups of tea are poured against the background of flickering lights as the train shrieks past on its way to Newcastle.

And the actors are rather brilliant too.

Annie Whittle is the epitome of gracious hospitality, embodying Mrs Wilberforce with just the right mixture of steely reserve (her umbrella has done damage in the past) and bespectacled amiability. Unaware of the Machiavellian scheme being plotted beneath her roof, she persists in according the utmost respect to the motley bunch of supposed musos who stalk into her life.

As the suave Professor Marcus, Carl Bland is perfectly cast and impeccable in his ability to shepherd his wayward, often sceptical and occasionally obsessively compulsive crew around the tiny house. His masterful charm flatters and coaxes his colleagues into undertaking a far more dastardly deed than they originally anticipated: the murder of an innocent little old lady. Unfortunately the quartet he attempts to orchestrate and conduct seem to have their own versions of the score …

High-strung Major Courtney (Peter Hayden) seems better suited for dressing up in ladies’ garb than doing away with the gentler sex and while the Romanian misogynist Louis Harvey (Toby Leach), a rather evil looking impersonator of hissing cats, has issues with motherly figures. The sadly slow-witted One-Round (Andrew Grainger) is affable and endearing, especially when he discovers a flame of courage and rushes to the defence of the sleeping lady. The capabilities of young spiv Harry (Byron Coll) lie more in the polishing department than in creating bloody messes.

In true Shakespearean fashion there are very few people left standing at the end of this rather inevitably macabre tale, yet the journey is one of cheery inevitability. It also carries an underlying warning: never underestimate the power of a single woman; especially one who has a parrot named General Gordon. Perhaps the weakest character of them all, General Gordon’s rattling cage and only vaguely decipherable acerbic comments getting highly exaggerated reactions from everyone yet never quite seem to merit all the focus and attention.

While the premise of the plot is relatively straight forward (perhaps this is where Home Alone got its inspiration?), it is to the credit of the actors and creatives that when the stakes are raised so is the energy. Collectively the cast work well together, like the proverbial well-oiled machine. The Ladykillers is exactly that: a smooth, perfectly timed, gag-indulgent, comic delight that showcases some extraordinary talent.

In addition, Paul Minifie as the local bobby and Yvette Parson’s as the mature groupie Mrs Jane Tronleyton give notably strong performances while, with much glee and delight, Mrs Wilberforce’s cohort of friends (Sue East, Elizabeth Kernohan, Patricia Noonan, Christina Pusztay, Marianne Simpkins and Rosslyn Smillie) swell the cast to a collective of unwaveringly committed performers.

Rachael Walker’s set is a tribute the period, with exceptional attention to detail. Her design of the crooked room is metaphorically and literally appropriate. While northern London seems to boast a rather smog free sky, it is a good use of space punctuated with puffs of smoke.  Phillip Dexter’s lighting design is subtle and complementary in general but on opening night more than one cue seems to be a bit late – but, aside from brief glimpses of the deceased heading offstage, nothing major.

Credit must also be given to Michael Hurst’s seamless stunt choreography that ensures the quick, often brutish exchanges are lively and impactful with no trace of stylised clichés.

A fittingly appropriate production to herald the launch of ATC’s 2015 season and a promise for a variety of rich, engaging and revealing works upon New Zealand’s foremost main stage.

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