Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Arsenic and Old Lace

Joseph Kesselring
Strand Theatre
(2003)

Matthew Francis's new production transfers a much-loved Hollywood movie comedy back to its stage roots. The blackest of black comedies managed runs of over 1,000 shows on each side of the Atlantic.

Francis has put together a cast that will appeal to television aficionados of every hue. There are stars of Coronation Street, Seinfeld, Dangerfield, and, together in Stephen Tompkinson, Drop the Dead Donkey and Ballykissangel. That should ensure that the box office is kept busy.

The Brewsters, the New York family around whom the plot revolves, are a kind of Addams Family a couple of generations early. The two maiden aunts, Abby (Thelma Barlow) and Martha (Marcia Warren) have a secret that they have successfully hidden from their nephews. They are serial killers with twelve scalps to their names. They are however, the sweetest examples of the species ever known. These two actresses seem a little young and robust, lacking the frailty that the parts appear to demand.

The nephews are even more amazing. Mortimer (the mort as in death?) is a theatre critic who hates theatre, with a sweetly vacuous girlfriend (Hattie Morahan). At one particularly funny point, Mortimer gets into The Real Inspector Hound country as the critic drifts into the play. Stephen Tompkinson rushes around in this main role but seems badly miscast, almost as if he was dropped in from another play.

The first act is very slow and only really comes to life at its end as the two stars of the show make an appearance.

Looking like the villains in Home Alone, Jonathan, the dangerously mad nephew, is played wonderfully by Michael Richards who is better known as Kramer from Seinfeld. He is an escaped murderer who has annual face changes and currently looks like Boris Karloff, the actor who created the part in New York. His sidekick, the tiny, Peter Lorre-like Dr Einstein (Paul Rider,) makes a superb foil. The likeness is no coincidence, in that Lorre starred alongside Cary Grant in Frank Capra's 1944 movie version.

The jokes come in a stream rather than a flood. The best are mainly physical, particularly the transportation of bodies in semi-darkness, which is reminiscent of Joe Orton. The play can seem dated but the moral stance that the aunts take does add to the very topical debate here on euthanasia and its limits.

This is a pleasant evening at the theatre with star-spotting easy to achieve. The Brooklyn accents are not always perfect, as the New Yorkers in the audience seemed keen to point out, but this is unlikely to worry British theatregoers.

Arsenic and Old Lace will probably enjoy a good run on the back of the big names and for the performances of Richards and Rider deserves to do so.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher