Arsenic and Old Lace (1973)

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Poster by David Marchant

by Joseph Kesselring

Designed & Directed by Michael Archer, Assited by Tony Westhead

Performances: 6th & 8th - 13th January 1973, Theatre


Text about the play




"Little Murders"

When one sees two local productions of the same play in a short space of time, one's first temptation is to draw critical comparisons. I shall resist it, except to make the point that S.L.T.C.'s current production of Joseph Kesselring's "Arsenic and Old Lace", by sticking to the original Brooklyn setting, works under a handicap from which Beckenham Theatre Centre's recent production was free.

By opting for a wholly English style, with Home Counties accents, Beckenham lost little of the play's favour and gained by their use of a milieu with which the actors were all familiar. By comparison, S.L.T.C. make quite a hard labour of alien accents. In compensation, their policemen are more natural as New York cops, and the essentially American style of drama critic Mortimer Brewster is allowed to flourish.

The play is directed by Michael Archer, with the assistance of Tony Westhead. Between them, however one divides the responsibilities, they exceed in exploiting the larger lunacy of the plot, but tend to be unsure on points of detail. I lost count of the number of funny lines that were weakened by maladroit timing. Nor was enough attention paid to nuances of characterisation. Some of the minor roles are played so as to go for almost nothing, and over these it is best to draw a decent veil.

Luckily, there are two strong performances by the Brewster sisters, those kindly old ladies who see it as a mission of charity to polish off a succession of lonely old men. As Abby, Lilian Frith is the dominant partner , showing an edge of cold reserve beneath the sweetest of exteriors. Irene Wimbourne's Martha emerges here as the pliant weaker sister, dependent on the leadership of a stronger will than her own.

A problem is presented in respect of Teddy Brewster, the mad nephew who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt. His portrayal by Tom Smith is no more than skin-deep, and the first sign we see of any undue eccentricity is when he make his first exit. He only comes to life as a character during the "funny bits". Unlike Abby and Martha, who are unnervingly sane except when acting out their singular obsession. Teddy should at all times be a recognisably "mad" creature, wholly possessed by his illusion.

John Lyne portrays the dry cynicism of Mortimer of Mortimer with distinction, but should, I feel, react more strongly to the bizarre events which he discovers under the placid surface of the household. As the homicidal Jonathan Brewster, Malcolm Saunders is not fierce enough to justify all the comments about the sinister face Dr Einstein has given him.

As Einstein himself, Charles Cheetham looks an undeniably comic figure, with his seedy raincoat and generally crumpled air. But these are mere trappings at that. His interpretation is more Cheethamesque than Einsteinian, which is, I suppose, good enough for most people, if not for the author.

Bernard Bullbrook easily steals the small part of the show in which he appears, playing the harassed Lieut. Rooney as a gum-chewing incompetent who sees himself as a mastermind. Arthur Skinner, too, compels attention as the thick cop O'Hara with frustrated ambitions as a playwright. Both actors give an object lesson in timing to some of the others.

Janice Grady plays Mortimer's fiancee Elaine as a sweet girl with the odd flash of fire, and Alex Kanarek deputises for Freddy Crisp as the unlucky Mr Witherspoon whose destiny is to receive his very last glass of elderberry wine before our very eyes.

Donald Madgwick, The Croydon Advertiser, with permission.


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