Tuesday, January 21st, 2020

Murder, mayhem, and plenty of laughs in the Kemsing Players production of Arsenic and Old Lace

Review by Christine Paveley

It must be a challenge for an amateur dramatic company to take on a well-loved black comedy that’s been made famous by Hollywood. ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ was a huge hit in 1944, and the film starring Cary Grant is a perennial favourite. It’s therefore to the great credit of the Kemsing Players that they took on the task… and knocked it out of the park.

The plot unfolds in 1940s Brooklyn. Mortimer Brewster, a New York drama critic, visits his elderly aunts in the house where they raised him. His real reason for visiting, though, is to propose to his sweetheart Elaine, the vicar’s daughter from next door.

During this fateful visit, he discovers a body in the window seat, and learns to his horror that his sweet old aunts are serial killers. They have been using poison from their late father’s laboratory to conduct mercy killings on lonely old male lodgers. The bodies have been buried in the cellar by their simple-minded nephew, Mortimer’s brother Teddy, who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt and believes the bodies to be victims of yellow fever from the building of the Panama Canal.

Adding to the mayhem is Mortimer’s other brother Jonathan, the black sheep of the family, who arrives unexpectedly along with his plastic surgeon sidekick, Dr Einstein, and a dead body of their own which they’re looking to dispose of.  He too, it turns out, is a serial killer. In the ensuing shenanigans involving bodies and dopy policemen, it dawns on Mortimer that he is genetically connected to a family of psychopaths, and must end his engagement in Elaine’s best interests.

All comes right, of course. Mortimer persuades Dr Einstein to sign papers to commit uncle Teddy to a mental asylum; his aunts insist on going with their brother, and Johnny is finally arrested. Best of all, the aunts reveal to Mortimer that he is not related to the Brewster family at all – his mother was the cook. He can safely marry Elaine.

The Kemsing Players production opens with Aunt Abby pouring tea for the vicar, and two things become clear. First, Sue Davnall as Aunt Abby is a graceful, serene presence – we are in safe hands. Second, although the setting is still Brooklyn, the actors are speaking in natural English accents. This seemed a wise choice – Americanised accents would have been distracting. (Rick Davnall as Dr Einstein does a Bronx accent, which is later described by another character as ‘foreign’ – a nice touch.)

Simon Crawley as Mortimer had some very big Cary-Grant-sized shoes to fill, but he burst on to the scene with all the nervous energy and sparky charm we could want. He managed to look surprisingly Grant-like (Brylcream! I’d forgotten!), and did excellent business with his black spectacles. He commanded the stage and was extremely funny.

As Johnny Brewster, Richard Jeffreys – very tall and very thin – exuded menace. His voice has wonderful projection, so he can talk with quiet threat and still be heard clearly. Rick Davnall, as Dr Einstein, convinced as a nervy, substance-abusing but self-preserving criminal.

Throughout, Laurence Allen did a great job of making Teddy innocent but worrying. He must have been pretty exhausted, having to race up the stairs all the time shouting ‘Charge!’ Amanda Ingram as Aunt Martha made a perfect duo with Sue Davnall – they certainly convinced as two mad but kind old ladies, which was necessary to hold the piece together. Carolyn Corp was elegantly languid and dryly witty as Elaine. Doug Parry and John Stewart were highly entertaining as the two victims of the aunts having fallen for their delicious elderberry wine.

One of the most pleasing aspects of this performance was the pace. For an amateur production, it moved along at exactly the right speed to get laughs without being rushed. Cast and director are to be congratulated.

The set was liverish pink. This was an inspired choice – the colour reflected exactly the aunts’ sinister fluffiness. Given the small stage, and the need for quite a lot of furniture – plus a large number of people onstage for some scenes – ingenuity had gone into creating space for actors to move around. The side areas had been used cleverly to give actors a reason to be away from the main action but still onstage. The central table was small – just big enough for the tea tray. 

The physical comedy was excellent – the various struggles to get bodies into and out of the window seat were hilarious. Since this activity was ground-level and at the side of the stage, hopefully it could be seen clearly from the back of the hall, as it was well-done and very funny indeed.

On the first night, the occasional line was forgotten, but the prompter was alert and efficient, and actors were not disturbed by the need for assistance. Indeed, Simon Crowley as Mortimer managed to incorporate a prompt into the action by cheerfully thanking the prompter – in character – which brought the house down. All lines were audible; enunciation was excellent.

Makeup was excellent, especially for Richard Jeffreys as Johnny. Lighting was effective, even when actors were at the edges of the stage. Costumes were suitably in period; the cops (Tony Forward, Clare Ryan, Andy Clark and Alan Copleston) looked convincingly like 40s policemen.

The front-of-house staff were immensely friendly and hard-working; the evening felt like a special occasion despite the miserable weather outside.

Join in with the next Kemsing Players’ production

Wondering how to fill those gloomy evenings now that the Christmas festivities are over? How about getting involved in the Kemsing Players’ April production – onstage, backstage or front of house. After the tremendous success of ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ the Players are going a bit darker with a classic Agatha Christie whodunnit, ‘The Hollow’, and would be delighted to hear from anyone who’d like to read for a part or find out more about other ways to get involved. The group are particularly keen to hear from anyone who would like to learn about and help with stage lighting.

The read-throughs are on Monday 6 and Wednesday 8 January at 8pm at 42 West End, Kemsing. There are 12 roles, including some cameo parts for those who want to dip their toe in the water. A warning though: it’s very addictive!

The performance dates will be on Thursday 23, Friday 24 and Saturday 25 April. Actor’s rehearsals are two evenings a week (usually Monday and Thursday), but may be only once a week initially for the smaller roles. During the week of the play everyone – acting and backstage – is needed every evening.

For more information and encouragement please contact Sue Davnall (the director for this production) on 07931 528906 or email: suehdavnall@gmail.com. If you are interested but cannot make either of the read-throughs, please contact the Kemsing Players anyway and they’ll make alternative arrangements. They look forward to meeting you.

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