By Fanny Charles
Enter Salisbury Playhouse’s main auditorium and you are greeted by a two-story crumbling house, overshadowed by railway signals. As the lights drop and the set slowly revolves, a pitch-perfect dowdily 1950s house is revealed – dainty knick-knacks, pretty china, faded covers and dodgy electrics.
In a world shaken by natural catastrophes and fear of both terrorist and state aggression, we all need to laugh, have a good night out with no deep political or social challenges: just to be entertained. Director Peter Rowe and his company give us that in spades in this gorgeously un-PC adaptation of the Ealing film comedy, The Ladykillers.
Graham Linehan’s play is full of laughs, with a dotty plot, some evil villains, a delightful old lady and a jolly ending. It creaks like an old barn in a high wind, but that’s just what the doctor ordered. It is a play of its time, just before the kitchen sink explosion led by Look Back In Anger swept away such cosy stories of quirky British eccentrics, when rationing was a recent memory, and most things could be resolved over a nice cup of tea.
Mrs Wilberforce (Ann Penfold) is a sweet little old lady with a sick parrot, a dead husband and a house rattling to its foundations every time the Newcastle train pulls out of Kings Cross Station. She has a room to let and is delighted with her new lodger, Professor Marcus (Steven Elliott), who has a group of musician friends who will use the room to rehearse.
It’s all totally implausible of course – the “string quartet” is blundering giant ex-boxer One Round (a hilarious but oddly touching performance by Damian Williams), a psychotic Romanian knife-throwing hit-man (Anthony Dunn), a neurotic pill-popping young thug Harry (Sam Lupton) and a cross-dressing cowardly bogus Major (Graham Seed, Nigel Pargeter from The Archers, having another deadly encounter with a roof).
Steven Elliott plays the superficially charming but deeply sinister Professor Marcus, the role played by Alec Guinness in the film. His tour-de-force is as the conductor-composer in the “concert” for Mrs Wilberforce’s friends (a community chorus of local women in very 1950s coats and hats).
In some ways the star of the show is the revolving set by Foxton – a masterpiece of crumbling brickwork, railway signals, slippery roof tiles, dodgy chimneys and the faded 1950s interior. It’s a very jolly evening – recommended if you need an antidote to the distinctly scary world of 2017!
The Ladykillers is at Salisbury Playhouse until November 18.