The play I saw at the Vaudeville last week is a revival of the classic 1955 Ealing comedy directed by Alexander Mackendrick. That it all seemed a bit lacklustre was not for want of any acting ability by the cast, although it didn’t help that my friend and I had seats in the back row of the stalls. Some of the dialogue was lost.
The idea for the film screenplay came to William Rose in a dream: five criminals, intent on seizing money from a delivery van at Kings Cross, plan the heist in a house near the station. A sweet old widow called Mrs Wiberforce rents rooms to the leader, Marcus, who poses as a Professor of music and leader of a string quintet. The heist is to be planned under cover of ‘rehearsals’ with the old lady as an accessory to the crime, although she doesn’t know it.
Adding to the comedy is a noisy parrot called General Gordon, an incompetent and ill-assorted gang and Mrs Wiberforce's tea-drinking cronies, all keen to hear the group’s rendering of Boccherini minuets - really a decoy gramophone that disguises the gang’s plotting.
Michael Taylor’s set is superb – a tumble-down, bomb-damaged house like a shambolic cuckoo clock, all parts jiggling when a train clanks into Kings Cross.
Less successful is the robbery, depicted on a board with moving lights to show the van intercepted and the getaway cars. A trunk full of money at the station is to be collected by Mrs Wilberforce, on behalf of her lodger. In the film with the advantage of a high point-of-view shot as the professor watches from a bridge, it’s much clearer.
Angela Thorne makes a perfectly credible naval officer’s widow, but she’s wasted in a role cut short because so many of the original film scenes are missing. A series of running gags, such as the old lady constantly standing on the Professor’s long scarf and a pivoting blackboard that always catches a gang-member a blow, become tedious with repetition.
What the play lacks most is the location shooting around the King’s Cross area. Much of the film’s charm is derived from the police station, the back streets and corner shops as well as the station itself. It’s as essential to the atmosphere as the iconic station in another classic of British cinema, 'Brief Encounter'.
The film image of Alec Guinness and Herbert Lom on a bridge dangling a body by the ankles as they wait for trucks to pass underneath, the final drop swathed in steam, is unforgettable. The robbery scene with head-scratching porter and out-of-order telephone box, plus the final coup-de-grace delivered by a falling signal, are delights the stage version fails to match. Someone I spoke to about the film remembered Frankie Howerd's cameo as an exasperated street stall owner.
As the actors took their bows, my companion said the show was ‘delightfully silly’ and I more or less agreed, until I read the director’s programme notes:
‘the Major, a conman, is a caricature of Britain’s decadent and ineffectual ruling class, One-Round is representative of the used, brutalised masses, Harry is the worthless younger generation, Louis the dangerously unassimilated foreigner, and Marcus embodies the collapse of moral and intellectual leadership.’
Given the widely diffused irony and social comment in British films of the era – continued in TV series like ‘Dad’s Army’ – it’s a shame the stage play didn’t bring this out.