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Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace

By Andy Potter
Andy Potter voices his opinion on the latest production at the Derby Playhouse. (Photos: Keith Pattison)

Arsenic and Old Lace
Start Date:20/08/2005
End Date:17/09/2005
Genres:Performing Arts
Venue Name:Derby Playhouse
Venue Town:Derby

It's a sign that summer is coming to an end as the Derby Playhouse launch their brand new season, and so off we go again with four shows taking us up to and through Christmas.

Under the heading of Killer Tales we'll ultimately see Macbeth, Serial Killers and Arabian Nights, but for now the first of the quartet is Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace.

There can't be many that don't know of the cinematic telling of the story about a couple of old sisters with a penchant for murder that starred Cary Grant. 

Arsenic and Old Lace

It goes without saying for regular readers of these reviews that it pained me to think that there'd be as much celluloid used within this production as in the movie version.  Thankfully my fears are unfounded as designer Diego Pitarch gives us the three story house of the Brewster sisters on one very minimalistic set, however appearances can be deceiving because there's lots to commend about its ingenuity.

If the set is spartan, the same cannot be said of the dialogue in a story that has all the hallmarks of being a farce, but which doesn't deliver the big belly laughs.  Adapted and directed by Joseph Alford, the production only really starts to gain momentum in the second half as the Brewster sisters Martina (Geraldine Newman) and Abbey (Helen Blatch) have managed to dispose of their twelfth victim aided by their live-in nephew who thinks he's American President Teddy Roosevelt (Tom Goodwin). 

Teddy’s brother, theatre critic(!) Mortimer (Oliver Senton) is looking to get his deranged sibling placed in the Happy Dale sanatorium, but has also fallen in love with the neighbourhood preacher's daughter Elaine (Lindsey Allen). 

Unfortunately he comes across his aunt's rigor mortised handiwork in the window seat just as he proposes!  To make matters worse the house then sees the arrival of his other brother Jonathan (Dominic Burdess), and his travelling companion Dr Einstein (Lucien Macdougal).  Jonathan has also carried out a series of murders, but unlike his aunts, is on the run from the police, and to evade capture has subjected himself to varying degrees of plastic surgery, and now looks like Hollywood star Boris Karloff.

Arsenic and Old Lace

So what we have is a story that should throw up endless comic possibilities, however nearly all of the laughs on the night that I saw the show came from the precision of the physical comedy that is inherent within the production. 

Once the actors are on stage they stay there and so there are some interesting tableaux to be witnessed to the back and sides of the set.  It is a madcap world that we enter into but Alford encapsulates a lot of the intricacies into having his cast walk up and down various staircases that just do not exist.  There really is a lot to be said about not having a stairs!

The cast are all excellent although Macdougall's Dr Einstein and Godwins barmy president, and telephone answerers deserve special mention.

Not entirely as successful as I would hope Arsenic and Old Lace has all the quirkiness to appeal to audiences that want a little more out of their theatre-going experience. The comic timing, whilst already sharp, will fall even more into place during the run, although I do have doubts about the show's running time as it is just erring on the long side at the minute.

Score: Three out of five

So there we have it, no back projection, no huge truck and no fancy gimmicks, will the rest of the season fulfil this promise?  Watch this space.

last updated: 22/03/06
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