Forget Alec Guinness. Forget Tom Hanks. This is an ingenious stage version of William Rose’s classic Ealing comedy, penned by Graham (Father Ted) Linehan and first seen in 2011.
Despite its cinematic origins, it is at heart a good old-fashioned farce, lacking only the manic inevitability of the best of that inter-war genre.
Five career criminals take a room in a house near to King’s Cross station – very handy for the “stick-up job” they’re planning.
Their landlady – serial complainant and waster of police time – is fooled by their unusual “front”, a classical string quartet, but sees through their disguise when the cello case disgorges its cargo of crisp white fivers.
Peter Rowe, artistic director at the New Wolsey, Ipswich, where this revival originated, has produced a slick, well-paced show, greatly assisted by Foxton’s impressive set. The house opens like a book to reveal a richly detailed interior, and the whole thing revolves – powered by stage-hands in time-honoured fashion – so that we can see the roof-tops, and the quaint animated board depicting the heist itself. The scene changes are covered by gothic organ music and the play of steam and signals to evoke the railway beyond. Composer and Sound Designer Rebecca Applin provides some very authentic-sounding incidental music, setting the mood and the period to perfection in the wordless prologue.
Rowe’s cast is a little uneven. As the widowed Mrs Wilberforce, Ann Penfold gives a lovely little old lady, primly comic. Masterminding his quartet of criminals, and conducting their avant-garde performance, is Steven Elliot’s plummy Professor Marcus, his trailing college scarf an amusing running gag; Graham Seed makes the most of con-man Major Courtney, battle-fatigued war hero and closet cross-dresser. Anthony Dunn never really gets the measure of violent Romanian Louis, neither the accent nor the character, but there are very satisfying turns from Sam Lupton – reminiscent of a young David Jason – as the pill-popping, nervy spiv “call me ‘Arry” Robinson, and from Damian Williams, excellent as the slow-witted, ham-fisted “Mr Lawson”, looking a little like Oliver Hardy in his ill-fitting jacket.
The cast is completed by Marcus Houden as the long-suffering Constable MacDonald; he also contributes a hilarious cameo as Mrs Jane Tromleyton, figurehead of the “swarm” of elderly ladies who come to hear the performance by the bogus Boccherini lovers, mercifully curtailed by the interval. They are played by a community chorus, locally sourced for each venue.
The rickety old house, with its dodgy plumbing and faulty lights, not to mention permanent resident General Gordon, the raucous Macaw, will take to the road again at the end of the month, to be shoe-horned onto the stage of the Salisbury Playhouse, where it completes its tour.
Runs until 21 October 2017, then at Salisbury Playhouse from 31 October to 18 November 2017