Arsenic and Old Lace

Joseph Kesselring
Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
(2008)

Production photo

The largest cast production of Theatre by the Lake's summer season, featuring all but one of the current acting company, is Stefan Escreet's production of the 1940s American black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.

Sisters Martha and Abby Brewster are two sweet little old ladies with a sinister secret: they poison lonely old men who come to stay with them and bury them in the cellar, in a manner befitting whichever church they belonged to. They look after their nephew Teddy, who believes he is President Teddy Roosevelt, and are often visited by Teddy's brother, the famous theatre critic Mortimer Brewster. The third brother, Jonathan, hasn't been seen for years, but the chaos begins when Mortimer finds out about his aunts' little hobby, and builds up even further when Jonathan returns on the run from the police with a new face and the surgeon, Dr Einstein, who gave it to him.

The pace takes a little while to find the correct rhythm for some of the comedy, but soon settles in and achieves some hilarious, fast-paced comedy bordering on farce. On a very elaborate set full of doors, stairs and lots of dark wooden architecture designed by Martin Johns, Pamela Buchner and Dinah Handley are superb as the Brewster sisters, somehow being both loveable and sinister at the same time. Matthew Vaughan plays a very good line in comic blind panic, which gets plenty of laughs, while Andrew Pollard is quite threatening but ridiculous as Jonathan with the face of Boris Karloff. Patrick Bridgeman is the mad brother who plays his trumpet in the night to call a cabinet meeting and shouts "charge" each time he goes upstairs, and David Ericsson is the mad doctor with the German accent under Jonathan's power. Amy Humphreys is Mortimer's fiancée Elaine, whom he tries vainly to keep out of all the sinister goings on. Stephen Ley is wonderful as the policeman O'Hara with the idea for the script that he insists on relating to Mortimer in full without realising the crime he is missing under his nose, as well as playing Elaine's clergyman father and the head of the asylum.

The play goes further and further beyond believability as the action gets out of control, which only makes it funnier, although the anachronistic Tarantino references and the eyes lighting up in the portrait don't seem to fit. The sisters' matter-of-fact attitude to the things that Mortimer finds shocking, the running gag of Jonathan's resemblance to Boris Karloff (who played the part in an early production) and a superb opening to the last scene as O'Hara gets to the end of his great film plot are all great moments of comedy.

This is a lot darker than you might expect for summer holiday fare, but it works superbly as an extremely entertaining piece of theatre for family audiences.

In rep until 5th November

Reviewer: David Chadderton