When I first heard about EUTCO’s upcoming play on murder, insanity, dark comedy, and two ‘innocent’ old ladies as the instigators of it all, I knew I had to see it. Despite being swamped in essay deadlines and Christmas stress, I was fortunate enough to watch Arsenic & Old Lace on their final night at the Barnfield theatre. While writing this review makes me feel like an ironic parody of protagonist Mortimer – a theatre critic whose (arguable) gift for words causes him to be the victim of his own play – the cast and crew behind this fantastic production certainly deserve the commendation.
Arsenic & Old Lace’s plot lends itself to student theatre: dark yet hilarious, absurd but engaging, and the famous quotation “Insanity runs in my family; it practically gallops” feels like an understatement. With so much going on, it initially felt hard to keep track of minute details, but after a slow start the performance picked up the pace, and the scenes were flawlessly comedically timed and cleverly executed – if you’ll excuse the pun.
The cast were deeply impressive and brought a playful energy to this bizarre yet enjoyable show. Alex Rowntree’s performance of Mortimer was fantastic; bursting with enthusiasm and a perfected Brooklyn accent, our lead role was an instantly lovable and hilarious character. Seemingly the only one surprised and shocked by the murders of the family, Mortimer was a character for the audience to relate to, accentuated by his frequent ‘breaking of the fourth wall’. Rowntree’s energetic performance brought a vitality to the entire production, his extravagant facial expressions, beaming grin, and metatheatrical wit leading the play’s hilarity.
Equally impressive was Cam Scriven as Jonathon Brewster, the psychotic and murderous brother who returns unexpectedly after many missing years. His performance was one of my favourites of the cast, and while I’m sure his character was incredibly difficult to master, Scriven executed it brilliantly and with apparent ease. His American accent and distorted composure were absolute perfection, and his terrifying voice and eerie movements implanted the play’s horror. His disturbing yet charming aura accentuated the dark humour, making for a strangely enticing serial killer.
I must also congratulate Will Lempriere-Johnston on his hysterically hilarious performance. Proving the highlight of both the opening and closing scenes, Lempriere-Johnston’s impressive multi-roling exemplified how physical expression and articulation can literally make a show. His accents were superb, his vibrant gestures subtle yet hilarious, and even corpsing in the final scene added to the humour of his character’s naivety – I was in tears as Mr Witherspoon, centre stage and blissfully ignorant, unknowingly sips at his poisoned wine.
Finally, the two leading ladies Jessica Thompson and Cat Blanchfield brought a sickeningly sweet performance which epitomised the play’s crazy yet loveable madness, and their adorable laughter and casualness with statements such as “why, but there are 13 bodies in our cellar! We can show you, if you like?” were as delightful as they were disturbing. I would have loved to go for tea with them, even after the murders I saw on stage.
While the Barnfield theatre was a lovely spot, I felt the acoustics of the room itself – only used for the final night, admittedly – struggled to carry the characters’ heavily accented voices; words were initially slightly muffled, and some witty details got lost. However, I acknowledge this as no fault of the cast, and it was rather to their credit that through their exuberant facial expressions and vibrant physical performances, they heightened the humour and fear in every scene. Other tiny details were still noticeable within the large theatre hall, such as the fantastically fitting set which immersed you into a 1940s home in Brooklyn. From the hideous floral wallpaper to the antique telephone, and even the cheese grater and whisk as most threatening weapons, the attention to detail was exquisite and thoroughly brought the performance together into a unified whole.
Continually energetic, hilariously ridiculous, and playful in it’s metatheatricality, EUTCO’s performance was a dark yet wonderful success, which the whole cast and crew should be incredibly proud of.