Peter Capaldi plays the reptilian Professor Marcus -- first revealed to the audience in Nosferatu-like silhouette -- the head of a criminal gang who hides out in the Kings Cross house of kindly Mrs. Wilberforce (Marcia Warren) under the pretense of being members of a string quintet.
While the film celebrates the triumph of something fundamentally English in a murky post-war world, Linehan also brings more than a trace of the contemporary heist movie to the proceedings. (Reservoir Dogs is cited as an inspiration and there's even a visual reference to The Taking of Pelham 123.) Indeed, the piece doesn't really hit its stride until the second half when the comedy becomes increasingly more sinister. As tension mounts between the gang members and they begin to turn against one another, the production takes on the dark air of a fairy tale.
Linehan deviates from the film in some entertaining ways; a sequence in which the gang is forced to perform for Mrs Wilberforce's elderly friends and have to try and pass their ineptitude off as musical experimentation is particularly amusing. But often the writing and the playing are quite broad, and there's even a pantomime quality to some of the acting.
The cast are clearly enjoying themselves, which helps to compensate for the occasional sags in pacing and the overlaboring of some of the gags. Warren is deliciously dithery as Mrs. Wilberforce, fragile yet far more formidable than the men around her will credit, and Capaldi clearly relishes his villainous role, reveling in each hike of an eyebrow and each long-legged stride.
Clive Rowe, James Fleet, Ben Miller and Stephen Wight are also quite good, respectively, as the slow-witted but well-meaning One Round, the nervy Major with a fondness for women's formal wear, the volatile Romanian gangster with a near pathological dislike of old ladies, and the amphetamine-driven Harry, who comes across like a softer version of Graham Greene's Pinkie Brown with a penchant for housework.
In addition, Michael Taylor's gloriously skewed expressionistic set creates a sense of physical and moral subsidence, one which the production itself doesn't always deliver.