Written by Joseph Kesselring
Directed by Ian Hart
Canberra REP, Acton to 25 June
Reviewed by Len Power 10 June 2022
When the curtains opened on Canberra REP’s new production of “Arsenic and Old Lace”, the audience applauded the fabulous multi-level set by Andrew Kay. Unfortunately, that was the high point of the evening.
Joseph Kesselring’s play was a huge hit on Broadway in 1941 and had a successful run in London’s West End and internationally as well. The play has had numerous revivals over the years as well as being filmed. An escapist entertainment designed for its time, modern audiences used to fast-paced TV comedy would likely find its playing style, mid-20th century humour and topical references puzzling.
Aware of this, the director of REP’s production, Ian Hart, has changed the locale of the play to modern day Queanbeyan, updating the script and adding modern technology while retaining the basic story line. The characters display a modern sensibility, too, and the outdated references from the original script have been replaced with others more familiar to audiences of today.
Many of the new ideas in the script are clever and the director definitely had the right vision to make this work for today’s audience. However, while this may have looked good on paper, it has not translated well to the stage.
The performances by many of the cast seemed forced and desperate. Trying too hard to be funny had just the opposite effect and it all quickly became tiresome. There was too much hysterical shouting for no good reason and some cast members could barely be heard.
The pacing seemed uncertain and lacking in control. Overall, the show felt like it needed more rehearsal to find its right level. Hopefully this aspect will improve as the season progresses.
Alice Ferguson, as one of the elderly murderous sisters, wisely gave her role a reality and depth in contrast to the craziness around her. It made hers the standout performance in the show.
It was unfortunate that one cast member had fallen ill and had to be replaced on opening night by the director, Ian Hart. Performing in a fast-paced show with script in hand would be nightmarish but his Freddy Kruger-type character reference was fun, nevertheless.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” is a famous quirky play of its time. It may perhaps be past its use by date.
This review was first published in the Canberra CityNews digital edition of 11 June 2022.
Len Power's reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 in the ‘Arts Cafe’ and ‘Arts About’ programs and published in his blog 'Just Power Writing' at https://justpowerwriting.blogspot.com/.