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The Ladykillers - Graham Linehan and Sean Foley Reinvent an Ealing Classic

In the west end of London, a huge old higgledy-piggledy house appears 
to have burst through its walls and been tilted to one side by its 
foundations resting somewhat creakily on a post-war bomb-site. As an 
image of a dusty old England that looks fit to collapse, it couldn't be 
more perfect  for Graham Linehan's new stage version of classic Ealing 
comedy, the Ladykillers, which tours to Edinburgh this week prior to 
dates in Aberdeen and Glasgow.

Judging by its spring dates, this darkly comic yarn about a gang of 
villains who move into rooms in an eccentric old lady's dilapidated 
house close to the railway station in order to plan a security van 
heist has more than survived the translation. Much of this is down to 
Linehan's collaboration with director Sean Foley. Both, as Foley 
somewhat  appropriately puts it, “have previous.”

Linehan, of course, is the Dublin-born co-creator and co-writer with 
Arthur Matthews of seminal clerical comedy, Father Ted. Since that 
programme came to an end following the death of lead actor Dermot 
Morgan in 1998, Linehan has worked on numerous TV comedy shows, 
including Chris Morris' Jam, Dylan Moran vehicle, Black Books, and more 
recently on The IT Crowd.

As one half of comic duo The Right Size, Foley, along with performing 
partner Hamish McColl, Foley went from appearing in small shows on the 
Edinburgh Festival Fringe to creating The Play What I Wrote. This 
smash-hit celebration of Morecambe and Wise transferred to Broadway 
along with an ever-changing roll-call of celebrity guests.

Combined, Linehan, Foley and William Rose's original story for 
Alexander Mackendrick's 1955 feature film starring Alec Guinness and 
Peter Sellers make for a kind of comedic supergroup.

“Our show's got a lot more jokes than in the film,” Foley points out. 
“We weren't trying to be slavish and just rip off the existing work. We 
wanted to use it as a springboard to both homage the original, but also 
to take it elsewhere.”

For Linehan too, “The film was great, and we all knew that, but there 
were enough possibilities to have fun with it, but to also stay true to 
the film's original intention. I'd seen the film a few times when I was 
younger, so my memories were very much down to to the essentials. I 
remember my pleasure as a kid when I realised all these guys were going 
to be killed, and the fact that the old lady hot away with the money. 
So that's obviously all there, but I think people would've been 
justified in being annoyed if we'd just repeated the film. You're not 
doing anyone any favours if you just put in things which worked in the 
original, but not for today.”

This goes beyond Linehan's dialogue, as the wonderfully inventive heist 
scene is a testament too. But there is more to The Ladykillers than 
fun. As with Richard Bean's phenomenally successful One Man, Two 
Guvnors, which relocates Goldoni's eighteenth century comedy, The 
Servant of Two Masters, to 1960s Brighton, Linehan and Foley have fun 
with The Ladykillers' period setting. Out of this comes an extension of 
Robinson's original dissection of a little Britain awash with seeming 
stereotypes who represent different strata of a bunged-up post World 
War Two society about to burst open.

Amidst Linehan's madcap one-liners, there are prat-falls aplenty and a 
gang of villains with a full set of psychological tics that give things 
an increasingly manic edge. With the robbers masquerading as a group of 
musicians, but resolutely unable to play a note, the reaction to the 
discordant din produced when they're forced to entertain their elderly 
landlady's gathering is enthusiastically summed up when one of them 
declares that 'Art is one of the primary pleasures afforded the middle 
classes'. The fact that this line elicited a round of applause during 
an April matinee at the Gielgud Theatre says much about the milieu the 
play depicts.

This new version of The Ladykillers also marks something of a 
reinvention of classic adaptations which the show's lead producers 
Fiery Angel have already explored with their portmanteau production of 
The 39 Steps with a cast of just three onstage. Such rendering of 
familiar yarns use theatrical techniques more akin to fringe theatre, 
alternative cabaret and the TV comedy shows they inspired onto a 
mainstream stage. Hybrids like this are far from new, as Foley explains.

“Shakespeare based most of his plays, his comedies especially, on 
already existing works,” Foley says. “But he changed them and mixed 
them up so they had somewhere else to go.”

With this in mind, this year Foley has also directed a new production 
of Joe Orton's final play, What the Butler Saw. Orton's subversive take 
on farce came from a thorough knowledge of classical comedy, which he 
then filtered through his own scurrilous 1960s sensibility. In 2013, 
Foley will be directing a new version of Thomas Middleton's Jacobean 
comedy, A Mad World My Masters. Foley's Royal Shakespeare Company 
production will update Middleton's play to a 1950s Soho populated by 
hostesses, jazz musicians and on the make racketeers.

“I think there's something about people wanting to watch good comedy 
and entertainment right now,” Foley observes of the rise of post-modern 
populism. “But you have to try and reinvent things.  It would be 
cynical to just try and tap into the nostalgia market. You have to try 
and give people a genuinely new experience with material that's 
familiar to them. So what we're doing with The Ladykillers, it's just a 
soup, really.”

After The Ladykillers, then, could Foley see himself putting other 
Ealing comedies onstage?

“Probably not,” he says, “but I'm sure someone will, as is the way of 
things when something becomes successful. Right now, I'm sure there are 
producers all over London trying to figure out how to do The Man in the 
White Suit.”

The Ladykillers, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, November 5th-10th; His 
Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, November 12th- 17th; Theatre Royal, 
Glasgow, November19th-24th

The Herald, November 1st 2012

ends

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