It must have seemed like a good idea to take one of the best known Ealing film comedies of the fifties and relocate it in contemporary East Anglia (The Ladykillers of Orton Brimbles, Key Theatre).
Appropriately presented by Eastern Angles, the play by Harry Long is set in Orton Brimbles for Peterborough audiences and in Humber Doucy Lane for punters in Ipswich. Reinforcing the change of location there are copious references in the Peterborough version to Orton Brimbles itself, to Queensgate shopping centre, and inevitably to the Posh football team.
So far so good. Anything that makes theatre relevant and accessible has got to be welcomed. Though the predictable topical references to Bitcoin, Twitter handles, and 118118 phone numbers, added little or nothing to the play. On a slightly deeper level the obvious difference between the celebrated film and this rather bizarre hybrid is that the original script grows organically out of the criminal subculture of north and east London.
Though it’s a comedy it concerns itself with deadly serious issues, including a security van robbery, the attempted murder of the crooks’ landlady, and ultimately the total annihilation of the gang.
In the film version the criminals disguise themselves as a string quintet and in the play they become a theatre company. One of the similarities between the two is when in the film a cello case famously falls open spilling out bundles of banknotes. In the play it’s a guitar case spilling out loot stolen from the residents of Orton Brimbles Lane.
But apart from this pivotal similarity the two works eventually go their separate ways. By common consent the film is one of the classics of its genre. Few would make any such claim for this play.
Nevertheless, the energetic and desperately hard-working company of five did all they could to distract the audience from the play’s paucity of meaning.
An all-singing, all-dancing production, where every actor was also a proficient musician, they were led by Emma Barclay doubling as the landlady Binkie and Cow Crusher.
Like Emma, Todd Heppenstall as Left Eye had a commanding stage presence.
While Smithy, played by Alex Prescot, contributed the first memorable moment in the show with a splendid song and tap-dance routine.
Keshini Misha made a suitably lugubrious Kim, Daniel Copeland a rotund Scar Feet.
Collectively morphed at the end into the Chain Gang Theatre Company the quintet extolled the benefits of acting over burglary.
An admirable sentiment, always provided that the play is actually worth the actors’ time and trouble.
You can see The Ladykillers of Orton Brimbles at the Key theatre until January 27.
REVIEW: JOE CONWAY