Slapstick is back with a vengeance this Christmas: it's all over the panto season, the National's big hit, 'One Man, Two Guvnors' and this: Graham 'Father Ted' Linehan's roisterous adaptation of our finest Ealing comedy.
This surreal heist story came to writer William Rose in a dream, but Alexander Mackendrick's 1955 film is a classic because of Alec Guinness, in creepily avian form as eccentric criminal mastermind Professor Marcus.
In the theatre, Michael Taylor's wonky house is the star – despite an errant doorknob on press night, which prompted ingenious ad libbing. Everything is askew, dingy, and potentially fatal in Mrs Wilberforce's down-at-heel King's Cross boarding house, whose chairs shuffle sheepishly off to the left every time a train whistles past.
When her criminal lodgers (who are pretending to be musicians) fall out after committing a robbery, every fatality is a coup de théâtre: with surprises for the ardent Ealing fans.
This is an arch, knowing farce which – on the night I saw it – was not quite the sum of its excellent parts. Peter Capaldi leads the villainous gang with deranged aplomb as Professor Marcus, a conceptual artist of crime, whose long bohemian scarf is a repeated gag that becomes his nemesis.
Linehan has added wonderfully weird touches to the gang and the tea-loving Mrs Wilberforce. But Sean Foley's broad production over-relies on crass physical comedy: Stephen Wight, an actor who can crease you up by curling his lip, is instead hit repeatedly in the gob by a tiresome revolving blackboard. The crims inadvertent nemesis Mrs Wilberforce is played with a Miss Marple-like mix of dottiness and moral force by the excellent Marcia Warren: their shenanigans look brighter in contrast with her fading moral world.
The best scenes happen when Linehan goes off-piste: when the robbers are found crammed in a cupboard with only their heads visible, like tinned sardines, it's an absurd treat. Their concert for her vigorous elderly friends is the show's comic pinnacle – as well as a good joke at the expense of the theatregoing audience – who receive the humour and indeed all of this ingenious retro farce in very good part.