When Broadway writers and producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse decided to stage Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic And Old Lace in 1941, they genuinely believed they were pushing the limits of comic taste. Today, little seems cuddlier than the story of the little old ladies who murder would-be lodgers with poisoned elderberry wine, not as social Darwinism but out of misplaced kindness to the lonely gents. That the bodies are then buried in the cellar by a nephew who thinks he is President Teddy Roosevelt digging the Panama Canal, and the house invaded by his psychopathic brother who flies into a murderous rage when told he looks like Boris Karloff, reinforce a 2003 audience's indulgence of Kesselring's play as fluff from another era.
Matthew Francis's production at the Strand Theatre boasts a delightfully mimsy pair of maiden aunts in Thelma Barlow and Marcia Warren: Barlow has the higher profile, but Warren the better unobtrusive comic flair. Michael Richards is unrecognisable as the man who was Seinfeld's Kramer until he opens his mouth, but is also unrecognisable as a Karloff clone; his make-up is more German Expressionist than Hollywood Frankenstein. But he gives a beautifully menacing performance, and the Karloff gag is bolstered by Paul Rider ostentatiously playing his facelifting henchman as Peter Lorre, all serpentine sidling and whispering through the nose.
The white sheep of the family, sanity-wise, is Mortimer, a theatre critic... and, on the press night, it was amusing in itself to note that all the laughs during the extended routines on this subject came from the body of the banks of seating, with strained silence on the aisles where the critical fraternity sat. The serious defect, though, is that Stephen Tompkinson gives Mortimer the maddest performance of all. This may be director Francis making a point about arbitrary social standards, but it looks like wildly misjudged mugging from the shining-faced, pop-eyed actor. I once saw a comic performance-art show called How To Act, featuring a routine which taught the double-take in a kind of dance rhythm: "one-and-two, three, four"; Tompkinson's double-take timing gets well into double figures, and are less in the realm of screwball comedy than of Looney Tunes.
Perhaps, too, Tompkinson is simply trying over-hard to animate what now seems a rather staid play. Kesselring's pacing is almost sedate; pretty much the entire first act is set-up, and the plots and counter-plots of the subsequent two are surprisingly un-frenzied. Stephen Brimson Lewis's suburban parlour set has five separate exits, a gift for black farce, but the only rushing to and from any of them comes when Rupert Vansittart's Teddy repeatedly pelts up the stairs with a cry of "Charge!"; "the stairs are always San Juan Hill," explains one of his aunts.
The play is itself like a slightly cracked favourite auntie: it smiles at us over the lacy tablecloth, and we smile affectionately back, but nestling as it does cheek by jowl with Gyles Brandreth in suspenders and the umpteenth West End visit of Fame the musical, it cannot help but feel slightly out of its time.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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