Arsenic and Old Lace

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20 February - 2 March, Napier Little Theatre
By Jess Soutar Barron

By the final curtain, it clicks. This is a play about the parasitic co-dependencies between players and crew, critic and playwright. All feature, along with the quintessential suite of dramatis personae: wise fool, ingenue, Falstaff, hag, three-sides of Man: good, bad, mad. There’s a deep meaning in here somewhere, deep down under the cluttered stage, awkward blocking, stodgy dialogue. It’s so deep it’s hard to see…for the audience, and – more concerning – for the actors, and quite beguilingly for the director too, who doesn’t seem to have found anything to grasp onto to give this piece any raison d’etre at all.

Not that theatre has to be deep to be good. Fun is fun too. But this isn’t that either. It could be black comedy. It could even be Fawlty Towers Does Agatha Christie, but it’s a 45 run at 33. It slogs so slowly to the third act some in the audience make going noises when the curtain falls for the second interval.

On the whole though the audience is appreciative and laugh at all the right moments even if those on stage don’t actually drop the gags at the right moments – but just a beat too late.

The tension between each part of the play-making puzzle means there’s no clear journey for any one of the many characters on stage – just lots of busy business and faces that seem to ask: “What are we all doing here?!”

Perhaps the director, Mikel O’Connell, who’s shown great promise with earlier offerings, has been sabotaged by his cast, crew and own inexperience.  Any set designer who places the world’s largest coffee table right in the middle of the stage AND at shin height must hate actors. Any actor who wafts across the Continents every scene in terms of accents must hate the director. Any director who leaves actors with shocking blocking resulting in a series of backs and downstage arm gestures must…well…care little for the audience.

The real saboteur of this piece though is whoever made the decision to programme it. Sure, it’s written sort-of-around-the-time-of-art-deco, but it’s riddled with in-jokes and no-one in this room is old enough to be in-the-know enough to get any of them – unless that woman up the front really is 110.

Am-dram is so rich with dedicated cast and crew, and enthusiastic loyal patrons; they all deserve to be gifted the best possible material to work with. All this palaver, when the original is so very tired, is a shame.

There are some terrific actors treading the boards in this season but they’ve been squeezed into small parts. When they do appear though the pace lifts and the comedic farce shines. By that tricky third act the romp is humming along thanks to an excellent performance by Glenn Cook, channelling a burly Brooklyn cop. Neil McCorkell too brings such fun to the stage when he appears in two cameos that I want to reach into the wings and crook him back to take another turn. Throughout, Verona Nicholson – playing the dignified but dotty darling Aunt Martha – does her best with what she’s been given but with no foil to work with she’s adrift. Kyla Anderson has refreshing stage-craft but her expression and gestures come across as too flamboyant when the rest of the tableau is dragging itself to the denouement.

Beneath the dusty layers shrouding this piece from any form of relevance there are some home truths about the role of the critic, which offer just enough to keep this one alert. There’s a moment when the critic is bound and gagged and forced to listen to a playwright divulging every tiny, tedious twist in his latest opus – for hours and hours – until they all fall asleep. That feels relevant. And when that same critic looks for a scapegoat and proclaims: “They say critics are killing the theatre – but no it’s the playwrights”…well, enough said.

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One thought on “Arsenic and Old Lace

  1. Sometimes I enjoy going to the theatre just to be entertained…. do I sit at home watching a television programme still wandering at the end, What did I just watch? Yes, however this play allowed me the wonderful opportunity to ponder personalities, question words, phrases, timelines and relationships yet in the end…. I was not left wandering and wanted to goggle the phrases. I loved the Dr…. he reminded me of Robin William’s as that Clown Dr. All in all a very funny happily chaotic show.

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