Arsenic and Old Lace

(Harvest Rain Theatre Company)


Joseph Kesselring’s 65-year-old comedy Arsenic and Old Lace is quite well-known to even the most novice theatre buff, and it continues to entertain and amuse audiences in the 21st Century. A large crowd fronted the Sydney Street Theatre for Harvest Rain’s adaptation of the classic play on a suitable cool and dark ‘Black Friday’ evening.

The title is derived from the custom of sisters Abby and Martha Brewsters (elderly ladies who are known for their kindness and charity throughout Brooklyn) of poisoning lonely old men rather than seeing them suffer. Home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide is their weapon of choice, used on around a dozen men now resting in their basement.

Their estranged and freakish nephew Jonathon returns to their house with his companion Dr Einstein. Together they had been travelling the world committing homicides in Africa, Europe and Australia. Jonathon takes competitive pride in his violent acts, resulting in a bizarre chain of events as he aims to compete with his aunties and take revenge for a childhood of oppression and confusion.

The deranged nature of the Brewster family is typified by Teddy, the live-in nephew of Abby and Martha who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt. His constant interruptions of loud, irrelevant orders and charges up the stairs create a thoroughly enjoyable presence in the play. Mortimer Brewster is stuck in the middle throughout the production. The dramatic critic is the only Brewster with a hint of reason in the midst of murder and insanity, and he is the only one who can find a way to end the madness.

Angel McIntosh and Jeni Godwin are dynamic as the deranged sisters Abby and Martha. Their use of accent, body language and expression perfectly accentuates their dotty, fussing and hospitable characters, keeping the crowd in stitches for most of the evening. Mortimer’s somewhat arrogant and fussy characteristics are portrayed well by Jason Chatfield, who displays his diverse range of skills within the one role. His loud, clear and bossy voice penetrates to the back of the theatre and keeps the audience’s full attention.

It’s more than likely that John Stibbard was born to play Jonathon Brewster. His tall and thin frame, shoulder-length hair, spidery hands and creepy voice suit the character superbly. His posture and stance on stage develop the character further, along with the realistic and horrible make-up which was designed and applied by John himself. Jack Bradford adds great comic relief with his portrayal of Teddy Brewster. His constant calls of “CHHAARRRGE” before running up the stairs were a crowd favourite, along with his insistence on saluting local police officers O’Hara and Brophey.

The interplay between characters is smooth and the intensity is never dropped throughout the play, a credit to director Robbie Parkin. David Parkin’s set design is both intricate and very suitable. No detail is spared in the living room of the Brewster sisters, including photos and clocks on the walls, trinkets and even their family china. This is complemented by the lighting, which is brilliantly used to highlight time of day, weather and dramatic effect.

Harvest Rain’s production is the total package entertaining, amusing and thoroughly enjoyable. The actors are one with their respective characters, and the effect is completed well with the props, sets and lighting. They have created a superb night out for everyone from the average family through to the most learned and experienced theatre fan.

— Michael Fedrick
(Performance seen: Thu 12th August 2004)