Writer: Graham Linehan (from the screenplay by William Rose)
Director: Sean Foley
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
The Public Reviews Rating:
There seems to be a fashion for little old ladies involved in murder on stage at the moment in East Anglia. No sooner has Colchester’s Mercury Theatre had a visit from the sweet serial killers in Arsenic and Old Lace, than Cambridge’s Arts Theatre welcomes Mrs Wilberforce, a sweet little widow whose lodgers seem to have an unfortunate habit of ending up in the path of a passing freight train.
Of course there’s nothing to suggest in Graham Linehan’s adaptation of the classic Ealing comedy that Mrs Wilberforce has anything to do with such horrors but there is a fleeting suspicion that the sweet innocent old lady may hide an inner steel.
Mrs Wilberforce has just let her spare room to Professor Marcus – an ideal tenant, educated, well-mannered and a conductor for a chamber quartet. Or so it seems on the surface. In fact, the ‘professor’ is in fact the ringleader of a criminal gang intent on robbing a security van and using Mrs Wilberforce’s home as their safe house, the musicians nothing more than a band of career criminals. As Mrs Wilberforce is drawn unawares into the plot, things begin to go wrong and, as they say, crime never pays. Is frail Mrs Wilberforce about to be the gang’s next victim or is she stronger than they assume?
This is good old-fashioned comedy – and that’s not a derogatory observation. Linehan’s script is packed with witty one-liners, carefully constructed to build up the comic mayhem but keeping it just the right side of total absurdity. Director Sean Foley’s production conducts all the elements much like the assembled orchestral quartet, increasing tempo and counter harmony to create a medley that grows to a thrilling crescendo. It’s testament to the production that the farce seems wholly believable rather than the absurdity it really is.
Led by Paul Brown’s charismatic Professor Marcus, the entire company are clearly enjoying the piece, delivering performances of split second precision. It is truly an ensemble piece however, though more cohesive than the Professors fake quartet. William Troughton mixes a nice line in thuggery and OCD house cleaning, Clive Mantle’s ineffectual Major hides a passion for cross dressing, Shaun Williamson’s trigger happy Louis may not quite be as trigger happy as first seen, while Chris McCalphy gives a vulnerability to blundering man-mountain One-Shot.
With so much testosterone competing for attention it’s down to Michele Dotrice’s Mrs Wilberforce to try and regain some semblance of order. In Mrs Wilberforce’s world though order is linked to tea and the little old lady does her best to single-handedly keep the tea industry afloat. Dotrice’s creation is beautifuly detailed, full of subtle nuances and that hidden steel. She may be confused but there’s a glint in the eye that hints that there is more here beyond that mauve clad frailty.
Alongside the cast though, Michael Taylor’s spectacular set and Scott Penrose’s special feature as major characters in this show. Packed full of surprises this multi-level set provides plenty of visual treats and frames the action perfectly. It adds spectacle but in total context of the show without seeming gratuitous. Slightly trimmed from its West End run the technology now seems more balanced with the play and no longer overwhelms.
Old-fashioned is often seen as negative phrase, but here it fits perfectly. A good old-fashioned stage comedy that reflects a bygone age. It may be a classic comedy but this staging brings the material alive in a vibrant and fresh manner. Just keep an eye out for those little old ladies on your way out of the theatre.
Runs until 27 October and continues to tour
Tags: Arts Theatre, Cambridge, Chris McCalphy, Clive Mantle, Ealing Comedy, Graham Linehan, Michael Taylor, Michele Dotrice, Paul Brown, Scott Penrose, Sean Foley, Shaun Williamson, The Ladykillers, William Troughton