Heidelberg Theatre Company
17 February to 4 March
I went out to Heidelberg Theatre Company for the first time on Saturday night to see the first show in their 2023 season, The Ladykillers. The subject of crime is one of much controversy but over the years, it has proved to be one of the most intriguing and enticing themes in the world of the performing arts, whether it’s being brought to life on the screen, the stage or both. Based on an original 1954 script by Academy Award winning screenwriter William Rose of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner fame, the stage adaptation by Graham Linehan first debuted to rave reviews in 2011, almost sixty years after the original film was released in cinemas. Despite the fact that many movies and stage shows originating from the 1950s would be seen as potentially problematic, Linehan’s adaptation of this comedic farce manages to stay fresh after all these years and it’s dazzling productions of it like Heidelberg’s presentation that keep the legacy of not only the original film alive, but the legacy of the late, great Rose alive too.
In the director’s chair for this Ealing comedy masterpiece was a man named Chris McLean, and no, he has nothing to do with hosting the Total Drama franchise. In reality, he has wanted to put on a production of The Ladykillers ever since he first saw it nine years ago and his efforts as both director and set designer truly showcased his love for classic English cinema and devout faith to the original source material. Before the first line of dialogue was even spoken, I was immediately smitten with McLean’s masterful set design despite the fact that some of the sets were only utilised for a select amount of seconds, as it was not only one of the largest, most complex sets I’d ever seen but its atmosphere surely made the audience feel like they were right at home with The Ladykillers protagonist and home owner, Louise Wilberforce, but more on her later. As for his directing chops, McLean guided his small but sensational cast into delivering a mighty masterclass on comedic acting as no joke ever felt forced, no amount of comedic timing skipped a beat and no character ever failed to make us laugh at any time, resulting in a directorial effort filled with hilarity, heroism and heartiness.
The quirky, qualified cast comprised of only seven lead roles and thirteen individuals overall but each big role soon managed to capture our attention rather quickly with their wit and will, allowing us to root for them whether they were on the right side or the wrong side of the law. Most of the main characters in the show were men but they were all lead by one Julie Arnold, who unanimously but undoubtedly earned herself the title of the production’s queen with her portrayal of the lonely, war widow and landlady Mrs. Louise Wilberforce. Throughout her interesting journey, we got to see her character go through the ringer as a villainous criminal plan was orchestrated right under her nose before being unknowingly dragged into it and establishing herself as a true survivor and winner when the grand scheme comes to a head. Personally, I found Arnold’s performance to be reminiscent of naive yet no-nonsense characters throughout television history, including kids show characters like Dilys Price in Fireman Sam, sketch comedy characters like Leona Campbell in Mad TV and legendary characters like Rose Nylund in Golden Girls, but it was so much more as we got to witness a true heroine come to fruition despite her advanced age in a performance that was inspiring and innovative. Arnold also managed to bounce off of her character’s tenant, the maniacal, manipulative mastermind that was Professor Marcus, portrayed by the perfectly cast John Cheshire. When we’re first introduced to the “Professor”, we meet a sophisticated and spellbinding man who seems keen to get along with his new landlady before he morphs into a borderline evil criminal who would do whatever it takes to get his hands on stolen money. Despite his character’s vicious tendencies, Cheshire managed to keep his antagonistic character three dimensional in his conniving yet charming portrayal by showcasing both his lawful and unlawful qualities, leaving the audience in a debate on whether to root for him or ridicule him no matter how ludicrous his plans may have gotten throughout the play’s duration. In a performance reminiscent of British acting legends like Malcolm McDowell, he shined a spotlight on both sides of his character’s personality in a way that not many actors can do convincingly in our community.
What is an antagonist in a crime comedy scenario without his or her bumbling henchmen, accomplices or cronies? Professor Marcus had four of them, Jim Thomson as Major Courtney, Aaron Wilson as Harry Robinson, Gavin Baker as One Round Lawson and Sam Howard as Louis Harvey. All four characters were completely different personality wise but together, they made The Ladykillers a night of comedy gold by combining Courtney’s gentlemanly campness, Robinson’s youthful innocence, Lawson’s daft misdeeds and Harvey’s violent temper. The chemistry between each performer had an element of silliness to it in the best way possible but remained relatively smart all the while in a similar fashion to the Monty Python troup. Thomson showcased the positive and negative effects war can have on people through his portrayal of Major Courtney while still keeping his arc loveable and light hearted, especially when taking a fancy to crossdressing in a particularly adorably joyful scene. Wilson’s portrayal of Harry Robinson was a great example of slapstick comedy done right and his cockney accent was one of the most precise I’d ever heard on the stage and his performance of a small time petty thief about to hit the big leagues was imaginative and immaculate from his gleeful introduction to his gruesome send off. Howard’s accent for the eastern European Harvey may have been hard to place but his characterisation of the most violent of the quintet was a highly committed and constant one and despite his character’s brutal methods, the audience couldn’t help but love him, even with his irrational gerontophobia. I felt the king of castle, however, was Baker with his portrayal of the dimwitted One Round Lawson, a former boxer who was strong physically but not intellectually. His comedic timing was one for the ages as his character warmed your soul with his devotion and dedication to not only his craft but his relationships with both the criminals and Mrs. Wilberforce, turning into somewhat of a guardian or protector by the bitter end and it was such a shame to see his exit as I was left wanting more of his fantastic performance. I’d also like to highlight the performances of the minor players Ryan Purdey as Constable MacDonald, Lynne McGregor as Mrs. Tromleyton and Anne Woodward, Catherine Christensen, Anne Smith, Joan Moriarty and Maureen McInerney as the nameless house guests. Regardless of their limited stage time, each performer ensured their characters’ prominence and purpose throughout The Ladykillers and the presentation wouldn’t have been the same without them, especially when they too had solid gold moments throughout.
In conclusion, the Heidelberg Theatre Company established that their 2023 season is off to a great start with their production of The Ladykillers and being a first timer to their shows, I was left yearning for their next production when the curtain closed on this stellar display. With constant comedy, groundbreaking set design, thoroughly researched costume design and dazzling direction, the company offers an entertaining night out that not even stand up comedians can always provide and the laughter keeps going after the play ends. Special shoutout to my sister Bronwyn Etheridge and her Christmas gift of the company’s season pass for introducing me to this fabulous company and to the cast and crew associated with The Ladykillers for their marvellous efforts. If you haven’t gotten your tickets for their final week of shows, make sure you get them while they’re still available, support local theatre, congratulations to everyone involved and enjoy the rest of your hilarious run.
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