Arsenic and Old Lace

  • Date:
    Thursday, February 27, 2003
    Review by:
    Alan Bird

    Imagine a visit to your two beloved aunts in the midst of suburbia in order to announce your engagement. When you arrive you find aunt Abby having afternoon tea with the vicar and aunt Martha returning from her kindly visits with the sick, in which she administers copious supplies of home made beef broth. What could be more innocent and amiable? Even the fact that their mad nephew Teddy charges around the house with a bugle leading invisible troops into battle -whilst disconcerting - merely adds to the aunt’s saintly benevolence. This is the opening scene of this 1940s farce by Joseph Kesselring, and throughout the first act this scene of eccentric American apple pie domesticity is slowly unravelled to reveal a picture of criminal insanity.

    The two dotty aunts – out of a mistaken sense of mercy – poison with arsenic-laced elderberry wine any old man who they mistakenly believe to be unhappy with the same gentle charitable spirit with which they administer beef broth to the sick. Finally their ‘real’ criminally insane nephew Jonathan, who has escaped from a ‘real’ asylum along with a crazy plastic surgeon, imposes himself upon his aunt’s reputation for hospitableness. Add to this a collection of inane police officers, a fiancé and a couple of corpses hidden in a window seat and one has the recipe for what one would hope to be an excellent farce. Sadly, one would be mistaken!

    Director Matthew Francis’ production moves along like the aunts themselves, at a slow genteel pace and once the initial scene has been set there are no real surprises. The two adorable aunts played by Thelma Barlow and Marcia Warren lack the sharp edge of indignation when they complain about their nephew Mortimer interfering with their “enjoyments”. As cosy and adorable as these maiden aunts are, they never let slip, by even an inch, their petticoats of dotty amiableness.

    Their nephew Mortimer Brewster, the one sane member of the family, played by Stephen Tompkinson, reacts to each murderously eccentric revelation with shocked inapt amazement rather than with an ever-growing frantic agitation. Seinfeld star Michael Richards is excellent as the creepy Boris Karloff look-alike Jonathan. His hammed malevolent stare and evil cackle matches his bizarre make-up to create a perfect caricature of an evil monster, which leaves one feeling spooked rather then scared.

    Watching this production is rather like having tea with distant gracious relatives, one can find little to criticise and the experience is far from being disagreeable. Yet, it is the kind of thing one does on lazy Sunday afternoons in order to pass the time of day and not what jumps to mind when you plan an evening’s entertainment. I found the show charming but I doubt if I laughed more then once from beginning to end.


    Next Review by Jonathan Richards

    Matthew Francis’ decent new production of this rather tame black comedy is sprightly and fresh enough, but something seems to be missing. He extracts wonderful performances from a largely talented cast, in particular Marcia Warren and Thelma Barlow as the two mercy killers and Michael Richards as the malevolent crook Jonathan Brewster.

    Francis’ production is well paced and neatly directed, and Stephen Brimson Lewis has designed a wonderfully attractive New England home, complete with stairway to heaven, but I left the Strand Theatre distinctly under whelmed. Perhaps the problem lies in Kesselring’s script, which I might argue spends too much time “setting up” the action, and which provides only some decent jokes. Or maybe the direction tip-toes along in all its mild quaintness for too long and the pace never matches the brief scenes of screwball comedy for long enough. Nevertheless, this is a light, old-fashioned, enjoyable piece of theatre which, judging the audience reaction at the end, should delight many.

    (Jonathan Richards)

    NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Slightly amusing but thin-blooded revival." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Director, Matthew Francis takes too long to build up the mania but gets decent performances from his cast." THE TIMES says, "An engaging enough evening.....good harmless fun." IAN SHUTTLEWORTH for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "A delightfully mimsy pair of maiden aunts in Thelma Barlow and Marcia Warren." CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, This old warhorse of the reps has comic life in it yet."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers

    The Guardian
    The Times
    Financial Times
    Daily Telegraph

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