“Original, but inspired by” became the mantra of Graham Linehan and the cast and crew trying to explain their brand new stage adaptation of The Ladykillers. It was a phrase used a lot.
The whole massive project had been kept under wraps until yesterday, and maybe the big reveal had got off to a bad start by the arguably unfair treatment the Father Ted writer received on Radio 4’s Today programme before getting the train to Liverpool. But nerves were showing, and perhaps slightly frazzled, in the face of such a high profile junket.
After a week of intrigue, it was now all official – the Playhouse is to premiere The Ladykillers, adapted by Linehan, starring The Thick of It’s shining light Peter Capaldi and directed by comedy theatre wunderkid Sean Foley. It is a co-production between the venue and Firey Angel, best known for their smash hit adaptation of The 39 Steps. Lovers of our city, our theatres, and of comedy, were squealing with excitement as the news travelled the grapevine.
With a West End run to follow, although it might not be opening until November the show is already A Huge Deal. Even the promo picture that has already been posed for (above) seems particularly sumptuous in comparison to what we can usually expect at a regional theatre level.
Perhaps this is why the pressure seemed on. The team were at once bursting with pride and enthusiasm, yet clearly nervous the spirit in which the production is intended might be somehow misinterpreted. After all, Today’s Justin Webb had been antagonistic, opening his interview by firing at a flustered, and probably sleepy, Linehan “according to some people, you could be a bit of a vandal – [The Ladykillers] can’t be bettered”, and then pondering on Twitter why the writer had been so “cross”.
But heading up north, there was surely nothing to fear. In fact, they stepped off the train into a city practically busting at the seams with joy at landing such a coup. Is it November yet?
The Ladykillers tells the story of a little old lady, Mrs Wilberforce, whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of Professor Marcus and his four friends, who between them make up an unlikely group of criminals. Planning the heist of a security van, they decide to use Mrs Wilberforce as cover and involve her unwittingly in the plot. Things do not go well, and the Professor’s plan starts to unravel in spectacular fashion.
The hugely appealing thing about this new production is just how truly enthusiastic the cast and crew are about comedy. Maybe that’s where the nerves set in. This Ladykillers must appease the hardcore fans of the original 1955 Ealing film, intrigue complete newcomers, and amuse everyone else in between. Promising special effects, new insights into characters and “thrills and spills” aplenty, it certainly sounded like it is going to pull out all the stops.
For Linehan, beloved for his comedy creations including Father Ted and the IT Crowd, perhaps it’s the fear of the new.
“I had to have a reason for it being a play before I started writing it,” he said. He has, among many devices, taken out locations so the story can flow better on stage, and considered the things he would have liked to have found out more about in the film.
“There’s some key lines it would have been churlish not to include – “I understand you have rooms to let”, it would be a bit strange if it wasn’t there. And the bit where Mrs Wilberforce tells the story of how her 18th birthday was ruined by the queen dying is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing, so I took that verbatim. But sometimes I looked at the things I wanted to know more about.
“There’s a few rules: All the criminals have to die, they have to leave no trace; Mrs Wilberforce always has to be innocent, just the little things. But if you stick to them, you’ve got the root of the play. I really enjoyed doing this because I felt it work as a stage play.”
For Peter Capaldi, it’s a return to theatre after several years away. “My character [the Professor] is elegant and refined – much more gracious than Malcolm Tucker,” he says drawing out his words with a wry grin, and mentioning his grotesque sitcom creation without prompt.
“It’s really, really funny. That’s the reason why we’re doing it, it’s absolutely gag-packed. It’s a joy for actors who do comedy to receive this kind of script. We know we’re coming home. Something where you can do Dr Caligari meets Reservoir Dogs meets Upstairs Downstairs, that mish-mash of styles, the cast are all very experienced in comedy and can lunge into all of that. You need people who can tap into that and for better or for worse, I’m one of them.”
It’s Capaldi’s first theatre role in some five years, since he appeared in Absurdia at the Donmar Warehouse. ”I’m nervous about doing theatre again but at the same time I feel so confident about it I can’t think of anything better to come back for,” he says. “Maybe it’s wrong to say this, but I feel a strange confidence about this project. It has a sort of life of its own, it’s up and running before we’ve started it, and I can’t think of a better production to join.”
And for director Sean Foley, whose credits include acclaimed Morecambe and Wise show The Play What I Wrote which premiered at the Playhouse ten years ago, perhaps there just aren’t enough hours in the day. As he works on The Ladykillers he is also preparing to open a new production of The Painkiller, starring Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon, at the newly re-opened Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Oh, and he’s still writing his own new plays.
“I’m really enjoying it,” he says. “In this business you’ve got to be grateful to have any work, so to have two really great projects at the same time with fantastically talented people, you just can’t ask for more.
“I’ve always loved playing in Liverpool, so I knew it was a good place to come. Something like [The Ladykillers] takes a bit of time to get absolutely right, and all your audiences are collaborators in that, helping to develop the show. I know Liverpool is always a brilliant place to do that, because I’ve experienced it. When I heard the Playhouse was interested in co-producing, I said absolutely, it’s the best place to do it. Not only because of the sense of humour of the people in the city but because this theatre is so brilliant as well.
“It’s such a wonderful place to come and do comedy of any sort. This wonderful theatre used to be a music hall, so it’s a fantastic setting. And we hope it will be as exciting a show as you could hope to see right now in contemporary Britain. I can’t wait to do it.”
All done, as I walked out of the Playhouse I bumped into a small band of paps outsid
e, waiting to see if there was anything or anyone worth snapping. Not really sure who they were best looking out for, I showed them a picture I’d taken on my phone and pointed out who was who. After a bit of squinting, one pointed to Graham Linehan and yelled out: “Oh I know now! He was in Alan Partridge!”
True that – he had a small role in one episode of the Steve Coogan show nearly 15 years ago. For those closely involved concerned about the public appeal of The Ladykillers, its pedigree is already clear. Bring on the thrills and spills.
The Ladykillers runs at the Liverpool Playhouse from November 3 – 19, before transferring to the Gielgud theatre in the West End from November 26. Tickets are on sale now. The Playhouse will be announcing its new season next week.