Review by David Munro
ARSENIC and Old Lace was first produced in London
at the Strand Theatre in 1942 and ran for 1,337 performances,
not quite achieving the length of run of the original New York
production, which achieved a total of 1,427.
While both productions were during the war (The New York opening
was in 1941), this does not explain why a comedy about two murderous
old ladies should have been so successful on both sides of the
In America, the original pair were Josephine Hull and Jean Adair
(who repeated their roles in Frank Capra’s screen version
of the play), while in England, Lilian Braithwaite and Mary Jerrold
poured out the poisoned elderberry wine.
All very skilful actresses but the farcical treatment of murder
must have caught the mood of the times and provided a relief from
the news of the war.
America had the added advantage the Boris Karloff played Jonathan
Brewster, another homicidal maniac, who had got a plastic surgeon
to make him look like - yes that’s right – Boris Karloff.
The sort of in-joke which, at the time, must have seemed very
funny for the Americans, although the English were denied that
Today, the play seems very much of its period. The humour is
dated and by modern standards rather forced and consequently not
The play is, in short, a comedy thriller about a dysfunctional
family, the Brewsters; the two sisters, Abby and Martha, and their
three nephews - the half-witted Teddy, the psychopathic Jonathan
and Mortimer, a theatre critic, whose visit to them sets the farce
They live in a large house in Brooklyn (well captured in Michael
Holt’s convincing set) where the two sisters dispatch elderly
and lonely gentlemen who are then buried in the cellar by nephew
Teddy under the misapprehension that he is digging the Panama
Mortimer inadvertently finds one of the bodies and it is his
attempts to rationalise the situation that promote the rest of
the play’s action.
In the current production at Richmond
( prior to a national tour), the two sisters are played by Brigit
Forsyth (Martha) and Angela Thorne (Abby), both of whom give excellent
While the characters, as written, could by no stretch of the
imagination be called real at least their performances allow you
to suspend disbelief and enjoy the craft and with what these two
superb comediennes bring to the characters and make them wickedly
funny and very enjoyable.
In fact, it would not be going too far to say that the two of
them saved the evening for me from being a monumental bore and
made it a pleasure to be in the theatre.
I say that advisedly as the rest of the cast do not match their
expertise; mugging and overacting outrageously.
The director, Robin Herford, appears to have found the play
as humourless as I did and overcompensated by making his characters
rush about the stage in an attempt to convince the audience that
what they were doing was funny.
Admittedly, the script demands a certain amount of overacting;
the nephew, Teddy, who thinks he is president Teddy Roosevelt,
and who cannot go upstairs without making it a cavalry charge,
is an example of this, but I felt a little more of 'the acting'
from the cast would have gone a long way to create the period
atmosphere which might have made the script acceptable.
Sylvester McCoy, who unaccountably, and to my mind unjustifiably,
shares top billing with Mesdames Thorne and Forsythe, is a good
example of what I find unacceptable about this production.
He plays a plastic surgeon with an impenetrable 'Mittel European'
accent so his lines were completely obscured while at the same
time waving his arms about as though he were semaphoring the lost
words to the audience.
However, most of the audience seemed to accept the goings on
onstage as amusing so it would seem that Mr Herford has to a great
measure succeeded in convincing them that it was a funny play
despite all my reservations.
I feel though, as I have already indicated, that this was due
to the performances of Angela Thorne and Brigit Forsyth who were,
notwithstanding everything else, a sheer delight and worth spending
an evening with.
Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesslering. Director,
Robin Herford; Designer, Michael Holt; Lighting, Matt Drury; Sound,
CAST: Angela Thorne; Brigit Forsyth; Sylvester McCoy; Andy Havill;
Huw Higginson; Reanne Farley; David Peart; Mark Heenehan; Anthony
Houghton; Jon Millington; Peter Laird; Damian Myerscough.
Presented by Nick Brooks Ltd, Kenneth Wax Ltd and Adam Kenwtight
– A Theatre Bromley production.
Richmond Theatre, The Green, Richmond, Surrey TW9 IQJ
Tues, Feb 1 – Sat, Feb 5, 2005
Evenings 7.45pm / Matinees Wed. & Sat. 2.30pm.
Box Office: 020 8940 0088