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Theatre Reviews Shaw Festival 2019: The Ladykillers on stage only slays from time to time

Audiences may find themselves mildly entertained by this show written by controversial Twitter personality Graham Linehan, based on the original screenplay by William Rose.

David Cooper/Shaw Festival

  • Title: The Ladykillers
  • Written by: Graham Linehan
  • Director: Tim Carroll
  • Actors: Damien Atkins, Martin Happer, Chick Reid
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 12, 2019

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The Shaw Festival’s trial and error of what to put on its main stage that will draw sufficient crowds continues with The Ladykillers, a screen-to-stage adaptation of the 1955 British black comedy that premiered in Liverpool in 2011.

For a large-scale revival of a significant classic play like the Shaw of old, we have to wait until August and a limited run of Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. In the meantime, visitors to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., may find themselves mildly entertained by this show written by the Irish television writer and controversial Twitter personality Graham Linehan, based on the original screenplay by William Rose.

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The scenario is the same as the film: An elderly widow named Mrs. Wilberforce (Chick Reid) rents the upstairs room of her lopsided house to Marcus (Damien Atkins), who turns out to be planning a robbery at nearby King’s Cross railway station in London.

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This self-professed professor’s associates meet there each day under the guise of being a string quintet, endlessly rehearsing a Boccherini minuet (which they put on a record player as they plot).

In addition to the pompous mastermind-in-his-own-mind Marcus, there’s the mindless muscle One-Round (Martin Happer), the pill-popping lad Harry (Andrew Lawrie), the cross-dressing Major Courtney (Ric Reid) and the brutal Romanian Louis (Steven Sutcliffe).

Designer Judith Bowden’s set is the other main character in the show. She’s designed an askew, two-floor cottage that rotates in between scenes, allowing the audience a peek of neighbouring train tracks that will play a major role in what you might call the Grand Central Station Guignol to come. It has a few fun tricks hidden in its bricks, but is sometimes frustrating in the ways its world does not quite match up with the play. (A bout of vomiting and a major death defy the space-time continuum, confusingly.)

As helmed by artistic director Tim Carroll, The Ladykillers’s biggest laughs come when the actors wink through the fourth wall as they insult (and underestimate) Mrs. Wilberforce, and senior citizens in general. It plays as a metatheatrical teasing of the older audience that keeps the Shaw Festival afloat – and if you’ve seen the movie, or the Coen brothers’ 2004 remake, you’ll already know that it is the “little old lady” who will get the last laugh, so it’s all in good humour.

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Linehan’s script feels very much like a television writer trying his hand at theatre, but not quite knowing how to craft a scene that can sustain for more than a few minutes straight.

David Cooper/Handout

Indeed, a little more metatheatrical take on the material (such as a recent production in Ireland that featured female actors as the thieves) might have enlivened The Ladykillers further. Linehan’s script feels very much like a television writer (his shows include Father Ted and The IT Crowd) trying his hand at theatre, but not quite knowing how to craft a scene that can sustain for more than a few minutes straight; the second half of the show is particularly stop-and-start, with ample opportunity to admire the set rotating.

Of the cast, Happer is downright hilarious. The long-time Shaw company member is a versatile actor, but this season, in this play and in Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married, he’s proved once again his mastery of the many shades of stupidity.

Lawrie is frequently quite funny as well, showing a knack for physical comedy as the twigged-out Harry, but Atkins is usually just okay, over-reliant on shtick, and Sutcliffe is entirely too serious in his portrayal of a violence-loving Eastern European immigrant plunked in the middle of the show like a pro-Brexit pamphlet.

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Then, there’s Major Courtney, whose only significant attribute is that he secretly likes to wear women’s clothing; this seems like the kind of gender-panic gag that you’d write out while remaking an old movie, rather than one you’d add in to a 21st-century adaptation of an old movie, as Linehan has here. You can see the normally reliable Ric Reid wrestling with what to do with this – and that’s about all you see in his performance.

All those moments where the house is rotating and the actors are resetting themselves gives you plenty of opportunity to ponder how the portrayal of the Major may or may not relate to Linehan’s high-profile activities as an online antagonist of those who identity as transgender. (He received a police warning in the fall for his tweets about one activist, while other comments of his spawned protests outside the Irish national broadcaster in the winter.)

As for my own ideology as a theatre critic, I also had time to think it over and I swear I’m not actually opposed to creating new plays based on classic movies. But it does seem as if the examples that trickle over to Ontario’s summer repertory theatres from London’s West End (see Shakespeare in Love at the Stratford Festival in 2016) are never as fun as the reviews from the other side of the pond suggest.

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