Arsenic and Old Lace, Studio Theatre, Salisbury

SAY Brooklyn to most people and they picture the dramatic bridge and a New York borough that has gone through several iterations of poverty and crime to its current uber-trendiness. What you probably don’t think about is gentility.

But that is precisely what we see in the Brooklyn of Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace, a 1940s Broadway and West End hit that became a popular film starring Cary Grant. Originally a scary thriller, it found its niche when it became a black farce, and that is how the talented company of Studio Theatre plays it.

My companion, who is blind and could only picture the excellent turn-of-the-century house setting, said she hadn’t laughed so much for months.

It doesn’t sound like a  barrel of laughs – a story about a genteel but dotty pair of elderly sisters whose “mission” is to hasten the passage to Paradise of sad single old men, a psychotic serial killer and a bogus scientist whose alarming skill is to completely change a man’s facial appearance.

So you will just have to believe me, if you haven’t ever seen it. It is ridiculously funny– and if you are an old movie buff, there are extra laughs from the references to the resemblance to Boris Karloff of the surgically-altered monster Jonathan Brewster (a terrifyingly explosive John Jenner). In fact, the famous star of pre-war horror films actually played Jonathan on Broadway!

The madness of the Brewster family takes various forms. The kind old ladies, with their tasty biscuits and (poisoned) elderberry wine (Rowena Greenaway and Ann Acton) have three nephews – psychopathic Jonathan, returning to the family home after a long absence,  and Teddy, who believes he is President Roosevelt and is constantly leading the attack in previous wars or preparing to go on safari in Africa. This part was energetically played by Anthony von Roretz, who also directed. The third nephew is the entirely sane journalist Mortimer.

Alistair Faulkner, one of the most versatile members of Studio Theatre (on stage and behind the scenes) was a wonderful Dr Einstein, nailing the helpless fear of the alcoholic plastic surgeon.

Rebecca Witt was terrific as Elaine, Mortimer’s about-to-be fiancee, a minister’s daughter who knows more about the uses of the choir loft than her solemn father can imagine.

Adam Barge was convincing as Mortimer, a smart young journalist and theatre critic (the in-jokes were much appreciated), never better than in the scene when he is describing the ridiculous plot of the play he has just seen, as the same scenario is happening to him.

And Stew Taylor, consistently one of Studio’s funniest actors, was hilarious as the would-be playwright Officer O’Hara.

There were a few first night glitches, a couple of prompts and the odd slow moment, but these will soon be ironed out, and overall this is a hugely enjoyable  production of an old play that still works its black magic.

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