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REVIEW: Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring

2 Feb – 10 Feb 2018

Opening night of the new 2018 Stables Theatre season. There’s a classic comedy on the bill to dispel the January blues and, wait, hold on, is that Christopher Lacey relaxing in the bar and not sweating with first night nerves? Something’s afoot! All is not quite as it seems…  In a break with recent tradition, Leslie Adams has the season opener’s directorial reins and cajoles Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace to new life with a large and enthusiastic cast. We are transported to Brooklyn and the steadfast Brewster sister’s parlour. The scene is quickly set to appreciate Martha and Abby’s upright and charitable character before the surprising entrance of their nephew Teddy adds a disconcerting and discordant note, blown on a distinctly dodgy bugle. It’s all to become a bit of a hoot.

Thoroughly embracing the daftness of the script, Leslie Adams presents a screwball comedy with a dark side and avoids the depths that the play could, on paper, deliver. Judging by the audience reaction and a virtual sell out at the Box Office, he’s gone the right way.

Dianne Cheeswright and Gill Jenks offer two spinsters rather too fond of funeral services in sweet and self contained performances. Their fondness for Teddy, their love of good works and their standing in the community is only slightly undermined by the dozen graves in the cellar where their lodgers now reside. All would be well but for the discovery of Mr Hoskins, the twelfth lodger, quite dead but waiting, in the window seat, for the next of the sisters’ services.

Mortimer Brewster, played by Carey Poole, makes the awful discovery and injects vigour and timing to the piece. His intended wedding, to the delightful Aisling Edie’s Elaine, looks doomed but love will out, despite the intervention of brother, Jonathan, who arrives with a thirteenth corpse, a comedy sidekick and a murderous grudge to add further confusion and peril.  The presence of Ian Saxton as Jonathan and Simon Phelps’ Dr Einstein adds another dimension to the action and a more deranged threat than the sisters can offer. As a counterbalance the affable madness of Teddy is beautifully portrayed by Simon Colley.

The doors open and close as farce doors should, the unsuspecting policemen miss the point admirably and some form of justice prevails. The sisters are even free to add a thirteenth victim as the curtain falls. A happy ending.

Martin Robinson

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