Dark-edged farce brightens the summer

Arsenic and Old Lace: Joseph Kesselring; Southwold Summer Theatre (St Edmund's Hall, Southwold until July 28; Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, from July 31 until August 4) Every year there's something about Southwold Summer Theatre's opening production - this time an Anglicized version of Joseph Kesselring's classic American black comedy - that heralds the East Anglian high summer.

Arsenic and Old Lace: Joseph Kesselring; Southwold Summer Theatre (St Edmund's Hall, Southwold until July 28; Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, from July 31 until August 4)

Every year there's something about Southwold Summer Theatre's opening production - this time an Anglicized version of Joseph Kesselring's classic American black comedy - that heralds the East Anglian high summer. So, if the weather manages to turn itself around and stop raining on us, it may be that Jill Freud and her company have had something to do with it.

This is a fun piece of outlandish farce starting off quietly but building up to a take off point where almost everyone on stage is clearly stark raving bonkers.

There are two otherwise normal spinster aunts who charitably bump off lonely old men using elderberry wine spiked with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch of cynanide”.


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Then there's the mad bugle-blowing uncle (played Black Adder style by Jonathan Jones) who buries bodies in the cellar, thinking he's Kitchener and digging trenches on the Somme. They're the first loony members we meet of the ghoulish Brewster family, through whose veins genetic insanity is said to gallop.

Topping the lot is older brother Jonathan, given a hugely menacing comic villain of a performance by Jonathan Ashley. He's a multi-murdering psychopath who gets into rages that only snapping pencils or necks can relieve. It's the role originally played onstage by Boris Karloff and which is a recurring joke throughout the play. He brings round with him an accomplice, Doctor Einstein (Richard Gibson) a plastic surgeon who gives Jonathan a new face after every two or three murders.

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Even the sane one, Mortimer Brewster (with Nigel Pilkington playing the Cary Grant role in Frank Capra's 1942 film) has his problems. For one thing he is a drama critic who loathes the theatre. Worst of all, he has to sort out a way forward for this Addams family of screwballs.

At the core are the two apparently normal loonies, the two spinster sisters. Patience Tomlinson and Jane Evers give smooth, innocent and real performances against which the extravagant madness of the others can be measured.

Anthony Falkingham's production, in which the comic timing is delicious, gives a reminder of the cleverness of Kesselring's stage jokes and one-liners. His production has a nice satiric emphasis, lampooning the theatre, the police the army, and the church. This fine old farcical comedy, with its scary black overtones is in good hands.

Ivan Howlett

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