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Review – Arsenic and Old Lace – Chester Little Theatre

JOSEPH Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace never seems to have lost its popularity since it was first produced on Broadway over 80 years ago. A glorious blend of black comedy and near-slapstick farce, it has an enduring quality that is only occasionally dated by some of its references to the period in which it was written. It makes for a light-hearted close to Chester Little Theatre’s 2021/22 season.

The completely unhinged Brewster family have something very odd in their genes it seems. It’s dangerous territory to review a play that features a leading role for a prominent theatre critic, Mortimer Brewster, but it is probably an unbiased view to say that he is maybe about the sanest amongst the entire cast, along with his long-suffering fiancée Elaine.

His older brother Teddy is so far gone into the delusion that he is President Roosevelt that the family all indulge him as he charges about the house with his bugle and digs locks for the Panama Canal in the cellar. The arrival of the estranged younger brother Jonathan, a notorious gangster on the run from the law, confuses everyone because plastic surgery has transformed him to resemble Boris Karloff. It comes as a shock to everyone to learn that their two elderly sisters Abby and Martha have a murderous hobby that outranks all of them for strangeness. Jonathan’s surgeon friend Dr. Einstein in particular finds the whole situation far more terrifying than working for an assassin.

Director Charlie Núñez allows the play’s momentum to develop naturally from the sequence of surreal events. In the opening scenes that begin to set up the narrative there is something of a feeling of pushing a juggernaut uphill, but once it gets over the first summit it quickly gathers both speed and confidence, and from here on the pace is nicely judged.

Jonathan Johnston pitches his performance perfectly as the increasingly bemused Mortimer, who finds his life delivering something much stranger than any plot he might see at the theatre. His efforts to keep Dani Zebrowska’s cheerfully confused Elaine away from the antics of his family are very well played. Steve Lincoln meanwhile throws himself with gusto into Teddy’s bugle-blowing craziness.

The show is stolen however by two double acts. Dawn Adams and Caroline Young excel as the genteelly homicidal sisters. Adams and Young trade glances wonderfully, sharing their own dark secret and their disbelief that anyone might think them strange for it. Whilst it originally seems that Johnston’s Mortimer might take the prize for slapstick, he is outdone here by Ioseph Myddris and Haluk Saglam who play Jonathan and his confused sidekick Dr. Einstein. Myddris becomes increasingly frustrated by the repeated in-joke about his resemblance to Boris Karloff (the actor originated the role on Broadway) and he cuts an imposing and occasionally terrifying figure onstage. Haglam is an absolute master at all the background business that sits behind the main action. Along with his excellent performance of Einstein’s dialogue, he makes tremendous mileage of all the little visual gestures and expressions, adding colour to both his own performance and everyone else he is in a scene with, and he is a joy to watch.

Amongst a lively supporting cast, Brian Gorman delivers a splendid caricature of a bumbling cop as Officer O’Hara. Particular note must go to Keith Long for a splendid set design, as well as Matthew Parry, whose lighting and sound really elevate the atmosphere of the piece.

All in all Arsenic and Old Lace is a delightfully daft way to end a season that has seen quite a variety of light and shade in its imaginative programming.

Review by Nigel Smith

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