Arsenic and Old Lace

Tue 26th – Sat 30th January 2016

reviews

Clare Cavenagh

at 23:35 on 26th Jan 2016

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Arsenic and Old Lace is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the various eccentricities and psychopathic tendencies of the Brewster family, set in the heart of their operation: the genteel sitting room of the two maiden aunts who serve as joint matriarchs. As the action intensifies and the corpses pile up, the irrepressible mirth of the whole playroom only grew. Murder is very rarely this much fun.

The set design and props were carefully attuned to the claustrophobic mood of this grandma-gothic play, in some ways minimising the already limited stage space of the Playroom, making it feel cosy and homely, and like it would be just a little too well heated. The decision to open the house with two characters already onstage further heightened the feeling of being a guest, or a trespasser, in this tight-knit home.

In spite of this intimate quality, the action within the room was far from stilted. Use of the audience entrance and the back exit as well as the door in the corner of the stage allowed at times alarmingly dynamic movement of the actors, and really conveyed the sense of a room in the heart of a home.

Aurélien Guéroult was boomy and wonderful as the 'straight' man of the piece, entirely at the mercy of his completely insane family. His facial expressions and reactions to their antics were over the top and almost slapstick in a way which wonderfully suited the style of the show. His brother Teddy Brewster was played with full-throated enthusiasm by Colin Rothwell, who has perhaps succeeded in conditioning everyone in an aisle seat to duck when they hear the word 'charge'. Henry Wilkinson was a standout too as the highly suspicious and troublingly German Dr Einstein, a cosmetic surgeon of dubious training. He was also instrumental in the handling of the fire alarm and subsequent total evacuation of the Corpus Playroom which occurred literally mid-show.

Having the lights come on and everyone shuffle out into the windy St Edward's Passage at a highly climactic point in the plot is a very tough thing to happen on opening night, or indeed any night, and it is a supreme credit to cast and crew that the audience consensus was that if anything, this improved the show. Rebecca Cusack and Jasmin Rees, as Aunts Abby and Martha respectively, pulled of the brilliant trick of being just as charming, strange and hilarious in the improvised outdoor interlude as they had been onstage, never once breaking character, and keeping everybody in the mood in spite of the cold. I almost want to suggest that they evacuate every night.

I adored Arsenic and Old Lace, and this is a minor miracle considering how determined it seemed to be to offend me. As a theatre reviewer, unsuccessful playwright and Melbournian, I found myself the punch line of more than one joke. But this play was warm and funny even (or perhaps especially) when it was chilling and weird. All I can say is, don't drink the elderberry wine...

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Sarah-Jane Tollan

at 09:14 on 27th Jan 2016

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“There’s a strange taint in the Brewster blood.” Two elderly aunts with a penchant for poisoned elderberry wine, a nephew on the run with a zany German sidekick, and another who blusters about playing the trumpet, convinced that he’s Theodore Roosevelt. Director Mark Bittlestone and assistant director Dan Edwards’ production of Joseph Kesselring’s black comedy delights in its morbid humour, although it is the saving grace of a play whose dedication to its tomfoolery and cacophony of under-developed characters poorly paces the plot, unfortunately to the point of tediousness.

Aunts Abby [Rebecca Cusack] and Martha [Jasmin Rees] inhabit a house in 1940s Brooklyn, sharing it with their delusional nephew Teddy [Colin Rothwell], and the bodies they’ve hidden in their cellar, both a makeshift cemetery for Yellow Fever victims and a burgeoning Panama Canal to their unwitting nephew. Yet when level-headed, drama critic nephew Mortimer [Aurélien Guéroult] discovers their deeds, and his vindictive, long lost brother Jonathan [Jerome Burelbach] suddenly appears - his face etched with scars due to his neurotic dabbling in plastic surgery - the true extent of the Brewster family’s insanity is revealed.

The production’s immersive quality is the main result of the lavish furnishing of the set: an old-fashioned telephone perched on a mahogany side table, a gramophone lurking in the background, a makeshift window draped with white lace curtains, and a table clinking with teacups and saucers. The entire set breathes the 1940s, and it is wonderful to see such a commitment to a recreation of the era. Make-up was also impressive, with Aunts Abby and Martha tottering across the stage with dusty, grey hair and sinking, wrinkled faces, whilst the stage lights upon Jonathan’s thick, very realistic facial scars were unsettling.

The backbone of the piece lies with the performances of Cusack and Rees, and both were wickedly sweet as the tittering murderesses, charming and entertaining the audience with the contrast between their shameless taste for crime and gentle smiles. Cusack in particular gave a masterclass on how to sustain an accent, her croaking, Brooklyn drawl a wonder to behold in a production in which slipping accents were a little too common. As the centrepiece of the play, Guéroult’s Mortimer fulfilled the loud, swaggering masculinity expected from the 1940s, and he finely balanced himself between bravado and high-pitched yelps. Whilst Burelbach’s Jonathan was somewhat effective as the pantomime villain of the piece, a special mention must go to Henry Wilkinson for his whimsical portrayal of Dr Einstein, softly speaking his witty lines with a humorous German twang, and reminiscent of Herr Flick from ''Allo ‘Allo!' in his costuming.

Despite the merit of the cast, undeveloped and strangely situated characters pulled the tension of the production apart: whilst Joe Shalom gave a riveting performance as insecure Officer O’Hara [as well as another accent masterclass], his character seemed sadly misplaced and blockaded the incoming climax, reducing its impact. Mortimer’s love interest Elaine [Gabrielle McGuiness] had the potential to make a constructive contribution to the production – McGuiness’ adventurous coquettishness as the Minister’s daughter was well tuned – and yet the character remained side-lined in favour of pushing the farce to its limits. Scenes stretched out to accommodate a multiplicity of minor characters, and plot progression stagnated considerably, with only witty lines keeping the production afloat.

'Arsenic and Old Lace' succeeds with its morbid comedy, although as a production it lacks a firm direction. Whilst the cast were wonderfully talented [remaining in character when there was a fire alarm mid-performance, entertaining the audience on the windswept cobbled street outside, and improvising jokes about it when the performance resumed], the performance lulled and dragged out its climax for an unpleasingly long time, and would benefit from a few revisions to the script. Instead of fulfilling its farcical nature, it pushed itself too far and struggled with its identity, unfortunately becoming as deranged and madcap as its characters.

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