Arsenic and Old Lace

by Joseph Kesselring; dir Mick Ives
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
9 – 14 July 2012

The black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace revolves around Mortimer Brewster, his elderly Aunts with their special elderberry wine recipe, an eccentric brother who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt, and another brother – the murderous Jonathan – who reappears after many years’ absence. A true classic made famous by the film of the same name starring Cary Grant.

Set designer John Ellam beautifully recreates the era and despite the rather slow start, the play soon galloped at speed, to the great delight of the audience. The wonderfully dotty Aunts, well played by Lorna Spenser and Geraldine Cousin, appeared so sweet and naïve that I almost wished myself invited for tea. Their innocent logic was frustrating to nephew Mortimer who failed to convince them of the seriousness of their actions.

Jonathan Brewster (Mark Plastow) was suitably scary and the slightly unusual use of music (Dik Thacker) added to the threatening presence of the Boris Karloff look-alike. Jonathan’s fall, after being coshed to the ground by one of the policemen, brought gasps of delight from the audience at how well he accomplished this drama – and not a broken tooth in sight.

On the downside, accents varied greatly and slipped hugely although they are understandably difficult to maintain throughout such a long piece. Trev Clarke as Mortimer Brewster did well but gave the impression that he had watched the movie a few too many times. However his performance during Officer O’Hara’s ‘play’ showed his great capability.

Many characters popped in and out, with special mention to Officer O’Hara (Jimmy Proctor) as the wannabe playwright destined to remain as a cop and pretty Elaine Harper (Karen Brooks) as the Mortimer’s ‘almost’ understanding girlfriend.

Mick Ives should be pleased with his casting and the overall production. The auditorium was buzzing as I left, even after all three acts. Well done Talisman, more like this please!

When We Are Married

by J B Priestley; dir Helen Withers
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
7 – 14 July 2012

In J B Priestley’s three-act play, When We Are Married, written in 1938 and set in 1908, three well-to-do couples get together to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their combined weddings and have it revealed to them that the vicar who performed the services was not authorised to do so and that they are consequently not married after all. Scandal and humour ensue before all is resolved in the end.

The three couples competently provided the meat of the story, with perhaps the Soppits providing the most laughs – convincingly henpecked Herbert (Rob Wootton) quickly eliciting the support of the audience and his domineering wife Clara, excellently portrayed by Chris Ingall. When ‘the worm turns’, the audience are right behind him. A similar struggle occurs between meek Annie Parker (Gennie Holmes) and her pompous husband, Councillor Albert Parker (Matt Sweatman), whilst the Helliwells, Alderman Joseph (Steve Crump) and Maria (Emma Withers) deal with the subject of infidelity. There was a slight casting problem with respect to age; not all of the couples looked old enough to have been married 25 years and the ‘young’ organist, well enough played by Pete Gillam, didn’t come across as much younger.

Around these are a good number of other characters who add some spice and eccentricity to the play. The highest spots were the appearances of drunken photographer Henry Ormonroyd, masterfully played by Keith Railton. The audience lit up every time he reappeared to give another brilliant rendition of physical comedy. Creating a similar uplifting effect, and without the benefit of so much experience, was Nicol Cortese as the young maid Ruby Birtle, played with a very endearing cheek and vivacity. Rachel Newey as the housekeeper also provided much entertainment on discovering her ‘betters’ are no such thing. And Jan Nightingale’s brassy barmaid, come to claim her stake in the now unmarried Albert, was portrayed to cause just the right degree of repulsion in the respectable couples.

An enjoyable play, well directed and brought up in level by some exceptional individual performances.

Charley’s Aunt

by Brandon Thomas; dir Richard Collett
Priory Theatre, Kenilworth
4 – 14 July 2012

The farce Charley’s Aunt is certainly an old favourite, still regularly performed 120 years after writing. Two Oxford undergraduates, Jack and Charles, persuade a third, Babbs, to impersonate Charles’ rich aunt in order to arrange a liaison with their sweethearts. The plan is soon spoilt by the arrival of Jack’s father and the girls’ guardian, both of whom try to court the aunt because of her wealth.

The cast certainly played with gusto, in fact a bit too much of it. While the character of Babbs playing the Aunt, should be larger than life – and indeed was – the other characters ought to be more realistic to create a good contrast. What we got instead was a stage populated with a large number of over-the-top stereotypes. I felt this lost the humour of the story somewhat, as though the director didn’t have faith enough in the written script to cause laughter.

This was probably mostly noticeable in the leading characters of Jack (Ben Wellicome) and Charles (Mike Brooks) who are the characters we should identify with in their struggles to be united with their loves. Ben, in particular, spent most of his time appearing to give a music-hall recital directly to the audience rather than being a character in the actual play. As for the valet Brassett, Nigel Parker gave a most extraordinarily quirky rendition that seemed totally out of place.

Dean Stevens-Mullis, as Babbs, played his part well, although as mentioned, this was swamped somewhat by the characters around him, which is a shame. Ashleigh Dickinson, as Jack’s sweetheart Kitty, showed real promise and most of the rest of the cast played acceptably if not outstandingly. All that is, except Charlotte Froud as the real Aunt, who turns up in Act Two (this is a three-act play by the way). Charlotte played with such realism and charm that she stood out like a beacon and was a delight to see.

Overall though, it was difficult to laugh along with and not really worth all the effort.