A lot of people thought Graham Linehan was mad for adapting Ealing’s 1955 film macabre farce classic for the stage in 2011, but he successfully achieved it alongside original director Sean Foley, retaining the stiff upper-lip Britishness alongside some subtle updating, with richly comic and tightly written dialogue.
Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group take on the chaotic slapstick, starring a great cast full of attack and gusto, with director David Grimes ensuring the tomfoolery titters but never veers beyond the unbelievable.
Mrs Wilberforce (Wendy Mathison) is a doddering old lady living in a ramshackle, lopsided house over King’s Cross Station. Enter Professor Marcus (Laurence Wareing) looking for lodgings and rehearsal space for his band, who also have plans for a King’s Cross heist. The location is convenient and they figure this sweet-natured, tea providing landlady will be easily duped by their ruse, yet their twisted mess of deceit – and One-Round (Stewart Kerr) idiotically dropping some details – lead to the tables being turned on the bogus quintet.
Linehan has taken William Rose’s original screenplay and exaggerated the five villains, with the unhinged Professor’s gang encompassing pill-popping clean freak Harry (Dale McQueen), merciless Romanian Louis (Steven Croall), top-secret transvestite Major Courtney (Oliver Cookson) and aforementioned idiot One-Round.
The stage adaptation – alongside the cast’s physical use of the two-levelled space surrounded by a wonderful set (Chris Allan, Michael Mulligan) – adds a more madcap, Monty Python-esque quality, and just as Ealing’s original revels in the ability of British tradition to thwart post-war opportunities, Linehan could be scripting today’s current political climate, as fact seems stranger than fiction these days.
The first half cleverly sets up the story of clumsy crooks posturing as musicians in traditional madcap style, while the second act becomes increasingly dark, with laugh-out-loud humour turning distinctly black towards the play’s dramatic peak.
The ensemble work well together, delivering the razor-sharp one-liners thick and fast, though sometimes the machine gun rate of them results in tough to hear moments. Mathison is a convincing Mrs Wilberforce, upholding the letter of the law while remaining likeable; Wareing a shifty, disconcerting leader ultimately out for himself, and his band of merry men are bequeathed the biggest laughs, with special mentions for Dale McQueen’s wonderful physicality as Harry and Stewart Kerr’s lovably lobotomised One-Round.
Sure, you may see the gags coming from a mile away, but there’s still a pay-off as it’s clear this cast are enjoying every minute, which proves infectious for the audience who are more than happy to be led down ludicrous lane.