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Jan. 18, 2020 | Saturday
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Shaw review: Ladykillers is appealing
Chick Reid as Mrs. Wilberforce and Damien Atkins as Professor Marcus in The Ladykillers. (David Cooper/Supplied)


It’s silly, full of sophomoric slapstick, boorish jokes, puerile postures and inane situations, but the Shaw Festival’s production of “The Ladykillers” is pure fun. Artistic director Tim Carroll directs this North American premiere, and it is acted so well that the silliness prevails in a happy way, which might be just what one needs in the world today.

Based on a best-loved British film that featured Alec Guinness, the play poses the question: is it really so hard to kill one little old lady? Set in post-World War II London, five eccentric crooks pose as an amateur string quintet in order to rent a room from the aforementioned little old lady, Mrs. Wilberforce (Chick Reid), bizarre in her own way.

She has a reputation with the local constabulary – particularly Constable Macdonald (Kristopher Bowman) for reporting fanciful incidents. This trait made her attractive to the robbers. Gang leader, professor Marcus (Damien Atkins) knows that the local police humour her and take little that she says seriously.

Mrs. Wilberforce houses her dead husband’s ashes in a bowl that, of course, gets spilled and almost-dead General Gordon, an Ecuadorian Amazon parrot, gravely sick and apparently quite repellant to look at. The movie makes better use of General Gordon when Peter Sellers gets thrashed by the squawky bird’s beak.

The gang is comprised of gallant Major Courtney, known simply as “the Major,” malicious Louis, a Romanian thug with a devastating fear of old women (it gets explained), a strong but dumb ex-boxer dubbed One-Round (Martin Happer) and the fastidious Harry (Andrew Lawrie) who, while pursuing his cleaning fetish, leaves fingerprints everywhere.

One-Round calls Mrs. Wilberforce “Mrs. Lopsided” because everything in her post-war house is set on an angle, especially the house itself designed superbly by Judith Bowden. In fact, the house, which sits on a revolving stage, is one of the best components of the show. Happer’s death scene is the funniest: a knife thrown by Louis is lodged in his skull as he blandly sits for one last piece on the cello.

Each crook is assigned to kill Mrs. Wilberforce, but they all perish in their own inexplicable ways, their bodies dropped over the train tracks as locomotives noisily pass by the shaking, lights-flashing house. The professor’s extra-long scarf constitutes a running gag as Wilberforce continually steps on one end causing the chief crook to temporarily strangle. Atkins picks up from last year’s exquisite portrayal of Sherlock Holmes and thrives throughout the evening on the fatuous farce, a classic scene involving his explanation for the entire gang hiding in an undersized closet, suddenly exposed to the constable and Mrs. Wilberforce.

Chick Reid, constantly tea-making, the excessively inquisitive “geriatric cuckoo clock,” works on stage for most of the play. Ric Reid’s portrayal of the anxious and gaseous, cross-dressing (that’s how he escaped from Nazi Germany) Major is hilarious as is the rest of the cast. Kevin Lamotte’s lighting and Paul Sportelli’s music wonderfully augment Judith Bowden’s amazing set.

A remarkable historical fact is that “The Ladykillers” was conceived in bed in a dream in England by American screenwriter William Rose who then dictated it to his wife and then fell back asleep, forgetting the dream.

The Ladykillers directed by Tim Carroll plays to Oct. 12 at the Shaw Festival Theatre,, 905-468-2172 or 1-800-511-7429.