By Graham Linehan. Genesian Theatre, Sydney. Jan 18 – Feb 15, 2020
Reviewed : January 18, 2020
This play is an adaptation of a 1955 film of the same name where Alec Guinness starred as a bogus ‘Professor’ who led a gang of hardened criminals on a bank heist – and met a sad end in the home of Mrs Wilberforce, who had unwittingly rented them a room in her bomb-damaged house near a railway line.
Peter Capaldi was ‘Professor’ Marcus in the first production of the adaptation in London in 2011 – and Marty O’Neill returns to the Genesian Theatre to play that role in this black comedy about deception, a phoney string quintet, a parrot called Major Gordon … and a very long scarf.
O’Neill is joined by veteran actor Pamela Whalan as the elderly but astute Mrs Wilberforce – and Rod Stewart as a London Bobby. Stephen Doric, Doug Wiseman, Paul Rye and Barry Nielsen play O’Neill’s nefarious but very asinine partners-in-crime who, toting instrument cases, pretend to be members of a string quintet.
Setting this play, designer Grant Fraser has transformed the Genesian stage into an old, two storey London house suffering ‘subsidence’. On the second floor there is a hall to the bathroom, and a bedroom with a window overlooking a railway line. The living room downstairs has an exit to the kitchen, a stairway to the upper floor – and a cupboard deep enough to hide the ‘quintet’!
Obviously, the sight of five grown men crammed into that cupboard is a funny moment of the play – as is the concert the ‘quintet’ is compelled to play for Mrs Wilberforce’s friends. The humour continues through the second act – but to describe the cumulation of the antics of the robbers would give too much away. There are some running gags, a money-heavy double bass case … and the increasingly precarious very long scarf.
Walter Grkovic directs a busy production that has people coming and going, doors opening and closing, the criminals scheming and arguing, and the parrot squawking. The ‘concert’ scene, for example, has the five ‘musicians’, Mrs Wilberforce and her neighbours – played by Pauline Gardner, Eve Lichtnauer, Susan Carveth and Rod Stewart – crowded into the living room.
Marty O’Neill and Pamela Whelan bring an abundance of experience to this production. O’Neill creates a Professor Marcus who is smarmily smooth and controlling. He uses comedic timing, and his scarf, very effectively.
Whalan’s Mrs Wilberforce may appear to be a little dotty, but she is also a shrewd observer who is never actually taken in by Marcus’s blustering. She portrays Mrs Wilberforce as a post-depression, post-war stiff-upper-lip Englishwoman with convincing appeal.
Pace is always vital in a comedy, especially one that verges on farce, and as the cast becomes more relaxed in their roles, the pace of this production should ramp up making the events of the second act as funny as they could be.