first night

The Ladykillers

Theo Holt-Bailey is left wanting more after seeing Ooook! Productions' first show of the year.

Being unfamiliar with The Ladykillers, what I got from the latest Ooook! production surprised me. A hilarious premise of five gangsters deceiving a slightly moth-eaten elderly woman develops into a plot which is in many places very dark and very moving. The script was as funny as it was simplistic, and the cast delivered page after page of slapstick physical comedy and clever one-liners which killed the audience throughout. Unfortunately, despite director Max Lindon’s apparent awareness of the comedy’s character-driven nature and its rather disturbing undertones, the characters were not as well realised as they could have been and the performance therefore never reached its full potential.

A lot of love had clearly gone into the show’s elaborate set. This was used throughout to add moments of subtle or slapstick comedy. The various rooms of Mrs. Wilberforce’s house were laid out one behind the other, making use of raised rostra and The Assembly Rooms’ deep space. This ensured characters could move naturally between rooms while the action remained centre stage. Mrs. Wilberforce’s (Carrie Gaunt) shuffling around in the foreground during the gang’s plotting scenes was a constant reminder of her presence—an effect not possible without this staging. Careful blocking was therefore required to avoid issues with sightlines, and unfortunately vision was often impaired by a pair of armchairs and the actors themselves. Several otherwise brilliant moments of physical comedy, such as a reveal of stolen money to Mrs. Wilberforce, were largely hidden behind the foreground set. There were other logistical issues too. The raised area which formed the gangster’s hideout got very crowded with chairs, props and people, and the small balcony area was unfortunately too small and cramped to do justice to the touching scene which took place there.

A sense of heightened reality was created throughout by the angular set, the lighting’s vivid colours and the fast-paced script. However, while each of the actors were hilarious in their own way, had the performers developed their diverse characters even further and been more willing to explore their darker sides, both the play’s more humorous and shadier moments may have been enhanced. Hamish Inglis owned the stage with his calculated use of accent, expression and gesture to create the pompous Marcus, his physical and verbal comic timing carrying many scenes. However, as the story unfolded we began to see a more sinister side to Marcus, and while Inglis embodied this by the end, for most of the play he showed little distinction between Marcus the mob-boss and Marcus the quirky conductor. Regarding the other gangsters, Uday Duggal was great as the straight-talking Louis, which nicely countered the other, more eccentric, characters. That said, he failed to convey the cold criminal menace Louis’ lines occasionally called for. Victor So (Major) is a real find for Durham’s comedy scene, but again he lacked conviction in his role as the cowardly snitch. In all of these cases, opportunities were missed to highlight the difference between the gangsters’ false identities and their true natures, which is a crucial aspect of such a character-driven comedy. As a result, many of the actors’ performances suffered, and the play’s more sober scenes often fell flat.

Credit must be given, however, to Barney Mercer, who created a fun and believable gangster in Harry, often catching the audience off-guard with hilarious delivery. Mercer gave a particularly beautiful performance in one of the final scenes, conveying Harry’s revulsion and struggle to make one crucial decision. Carrie Gaunt portrayed Mrs. Wilberforce’s age believably through physicality and voice. However, as with the gangster characters, this was at the expense of her emotional performance. Mrs. Wilberforce has several moments of revelation, outrage and cunning, and while Gaunt’s delivery was charged, her performance rarely conveyed these emotions in between lines and often lacked variety—perhaps getting lost behind the contortion of her face and body into that of an old woman’s. Harry Twining, playing One-Round, shone throughout the show and, for much of the second half, gave the most sympathetic performance of any of the characters. Despite this, the real highlight for me was Lindon’s use of physical comedy, which was blocked and timed precisely throughout, and often managed to convey as much of the character’s natures as the lines themselves.

The Ladykillers used precise blocking, intricate set, great performances and clever effects to create a hilarious show—definitely one of the funnier comedies I have watched in Durham. That said, it often felt like director Max Lindon had shied away from the darker aspects of the play’s characters and had not fully developed them, meaning that some of the more serious moments didn’t work and many opportunities for hilarious characterisation and interactions were lost. All in all, Ooook! Production’s first show of the year is a great achievement, but it could have been even greater.

11 November 2016

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
Our theatre that speaks for itself

DST is proud to be supported by: PwC