How do you approach a play when the film based on it is steeped in generations of lavish praise and is a regular on “favourite” and “best” lists? Well, if Humdrum’s take on Arsenic & Old Lace is anything to go by the answer is to pepper your cast with people who’ve never seen the movie and then let their imaginations run wild.
I must confess though that I have seen the film. Many times in fact… my wife introduced it to me expecting a faint response and it quickly became a personal favourite and a guaranteed pick-me-up on days when I just don’t want to crawl out of bed!
Thankfully Humdrum have a knack for finding the humanity in a piece, a rare gift indeed for a troupe of locally-sourced unpaid performers. Director James George keeps up the pace and ensures that the scripted comedic lines are supplemented with a sprinkling of sight gags and audio goofs. There are too many to list, but I must give mention to a wonderful sound queue as a body is hidden below stairs and the brief moment Teddy forgets he’s Roosevelt and channels his inner Evita.
The performances are uniformly good, with Lin Warner and Sue Bartlettwonderful in the central roles of the Brewster sisters, spinster serial killers who will happily admit to murder but take great offence when accused of telling a lie. They form the centre piece of the show and are surrounded by a rogue’s gallery of oddball characters. Tim Sturton-Davies makes Mortimer Brewster the straight man of the piece, eschewing the zaniness Cary Grant brought to the role in favour of a WASP-ish demeanour and a level-headed approach to the anarchy around him. Mortimer is a theatre critic who hates plays, but he’s a good man at heart. His brother Jonathan however is a wanted man with a predilection for torture and a face made to look like Boris Karloff because of botched surgery. Ben McCready is larger than life as the smug thug, strutting about the stage like the biggest kid in the playground.
The real apple in the Brewster family tree though is Teddy, the third brother who thinks himself the President of the same name, blows a bugle and charges every time he has to go upstairs and is crafting the Panama Canal in the basement. Ben Counter is a force of nature and gives some of the finest eyebrow acting ever seen on the south coast as well as delivering many of the funniest moments in the show.
I left the theatre with only one question burning in my head… why don’t we see more productions of a play that is still incredibly funny? I don’t have the answer, so grab one of the few remaining tickets and see this for yourself!