REVIEWED BY HUGH BRYANT

Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring
Performed at the Stables Theatre 2nd-10th February
Director: Leslie Adams

I went to see Arsenic and Old Lace on a Saturday . Traditionally it is said that Saturday night audiences turn up with arms (metaphorically) folded as if to say ‘Go on! Entertain me!’.

And we were entertained with several of the cast giving, in the view of another theatre goer, “West End performances” in this light-hearted, dark comedy.  I cannot be quite as generous this time,  but he has a very good point and with a bit of extra coaching, ‘why not?’.

The play is a bit of a theatrical warhorse with a young Bristol-born actor, Cary Grant,  Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre starring in the original 1944 film which followed  a Broadway run. It was originally a dark drama, but was rescued by theatre doctors who saw the comic potential .

The story is of two senior ladies who, as ‘one of their charities’, poison lonely, old men with their special cocktail of  elderberry wine, arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch of cyanide”. The ladies bury the men they have ‘rescued’ in the cellar giving them a formal funeral service. (Other – non-toxic – beverages are available in the theatre bar.)

The narrative may have been based on true life stories in the States and these may not be as rare as one might imagine: I think of  Harold Shipman and the vagaries of our National Health Service.

The play centres around the Brewster family home in Brooklyn where the Misses
Abby and Martha Brewster and their brother, Teddy (Simon Colley) who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt, live.  They are well supported by their urbane nephew, Mortimer Brewster  (Carey Poole)  and his fiancee Elaine (Aisling Edie).  Mortimer is a New York theatrical reviewer, a job some of us can only dream about.

Cranking up the farce is Mortimer’s brother, the psychopathic villain Jonathon Brewster  (Ian Saxton) with his plastic surgeon (Simon Phelps). Both delivered strong performances and produced yet another dead  body.  The bumbling band of cops added to the fun although their characters might have been made more of by the director.

But it is the dear and ditsy performances of Gill Jenks and Dianne Cheesewright as the not-so-innocent sisters who are the stars of the show as they trade dialogue and glances with delicious telepathic timing and character.   These women seem to have done every job in the Stables over many years and are part of the unsung heroes of the theatre, together with the large production team who created a great set design, with costumes,  wigs, lighting, sound etc.

Theatre is the poor cultural relation  locally with limited venues and finance and overshadowed by  the art and the recently resurgent classical and popular music scenes  yet the Council persist in perversely paying six million pounds subsidy to the White Rock Theatre to put on tribute acts and franchised musicals. I feel that the tide is slowly starting to change for the better, drama-wise but it would be good  to see monies better allocated to help nourish  amateur,  fringe and alternative theatre.

 

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