Mortimer Brewster is living the good life. He enjoys steady employment as a theatre critic for a top New York newspaper, the love of his life accepts his marriage proposal, and he has a good relationship with his eccentric aunts. However, his world turns upside down when he visits them to share the good news about his engagement to Elaine, the vicar’s daughter who lives next door to the two spinsters.
Discovering an unexpected guest inside the window seat, Mortimer is shocked to discover that his aunts have taken to poisoning lonely old men in “an act of kindness” and his deranged older brother, believing he is President Theodore Roosevelt, is digging “locks for the Panama Canal” in the basement to bury them in. Dealing with his crazy, murderous family, agonising over whether or not he can still marry Elaine, keeping the truth from the Brooklyn police, and the arrival of his other homicidal brother, Mortimer must dig deep to protect his crazy aunts, his beloved fiancée and his own sanity!
Adam Barge is a very likeable and charming Mortimer, with excellent comic timing, physical comedy and an admirable American accent. He makes an engaging couple with Rebecca Witt, who is full of sass, charisma and sharp wit as his fiancée, Elaine. Ann Acton delivers a very understated and natural performance as the seemingly naïve yet wicked Aunt Martha, with a credible American accent and wide-eyed apparent innocence – just don’t let her offer you any of her homemade elderberry wine!
Stew Taylor is excellent as Office O’Hara, full of energy, an excellent Brooklyn accent, and a strong aptitude for comedy as the charismatic Irish-American would-be playwright, matched by native New Yorker Terry D’Onofrio in a commanding performance as no-nonsense, authoritative Lt Rooney and would-be tenant Mr Gibbs. Equally impressive is Alistair Faulkner as Dr Einstein – not the famous physicist, but a German, inebriated, plastic surgeon who has been drawn into the dark-side by Mortimer’s bloodthirsty brother, Jonathan, coerced into giving Jonathan a new face every time he kills somebody. Along with Barge, the trio injected pace and energy with their performances.
As for all theatre companies, Studio Theatre have had a challenging rehearsal period and run-up to opening night, not helped by an added two-week delay, and this did seem to affect nerves and the overall pace during the first performance, although I’m sure this will tighten up as the week progresses. There are valiant attempts at American accents, some more successful than others, but the commitment from the entire cast is clearly evident and it is a pleasure to see live theatre at the Studio Theatre once again.
The set is well designed and beautifully dressed, with an excellent array of appropriately-aged props and costumes, perfect for the 1930s when the play was written, all enhanced by some deceptively simple lighting effects.
Arsenic and Old Lace runs until Saturday 9 October, 7.30pm each evening, with social distancing measures in place on Wednesday evening.