An American who wishes that Europe were on another planet; a madman who believes that he is President of the US in time of war – Arsenic and Old Lace may seem eerily topical. But this 60-year-old play is in fact more dated and less relevant than current revivals of plays by Shakespeare and Euripides.
Joseph Kesselring created the first version of Arsenic, which was extensively rewritten by its canny Broadway producers, the musical-comedy book-writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Opening one month after America entered the Second World War, it was a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and it has gained the reputation of a black comedy avant la lettre. It is an example of a moribund genre, the comedy thriller – the sort of film in which Bob Hope, say, would be miffed at getting no response to his jokes until his listener toppled over with a knife in his back. Like musicals and costume dramas, such productions were escapist fantasies: the skeleton fear of sudden, pointless death would be hauled out of the closet to be dangled and mocked and chucked back in again.
In the case of Martha and Abby Brewster, of course, it's not a question of some bones in the cupboard but a dozen bodies in the cellar. As their nephew Mortimer discovers, the sweet old ladies, known in Brooklyn for their good deeds and Victorian dress, have made a hobby of putting arsenic in their visitors' elderberry wine. Another nephew, Teddy, thinks that his last name is Roosevelt, and that he is fighting the Spanish-American war. A third, Jonathan, a mass murderer, has returned home after many years with not only a criminal accomplice but his latest corpse. The blindness of everyone but Mortimer to the wholesale slaughter (echoed later by a policeman's hearing a description of a wanted man while he is looking, with no sign of recognition, at the criminal) exorcised, with its ludicrous exaggeration, the fear that the people in charge were asleep at the switch.
Beyond the obvious similarities, too much has changed since the last war. These days, in general, we don't mock the afflicted. Nor are sadistic psychopaths so exotic as to be unreal: hard, now, to find comic the scene in which Jonathan ties Mortimer to a chair, opens a case of knives and says he plans to operate without anaesthetic. Michael Richards (Kramer from Seinfeld), waving wildly while drowning, is hopeless in the part of Jonathan, a role that has dated in another way, too. The murderer's rages whenever someone said he looked like Boris Karloff were funnier when he was played (in the original cast) by Boris Karloff.
The real mass murderer here, though, is the director, Matthew Francis. The best writing is at the beginning, when the daffy atmosphere of the Brewster home is being established. But Francis, who doesn't seem to understand irony, has everyone point and grimace all the time. Stephen Tompkinson, as Mortimer, can't say, "Well, here I am," without sounding as though he's clinching an argument. Thelma Barlow and Marcia Warren, as the sisters, retreat into near-trance and mannerism, respectively. So there is none of the calmness and verisimilitude on which the later chaos must rest, and what comedy remains in this old warhorse is killed stone dead.
Booking to 10 May (0870 060 2355)
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