Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Classy treatment of a classic

Arsenic & Old Lace

The Grange Players

Grange Playhouse, Walsall


YOU could almost die laughing at this classic black comedy by Joseph Kesselring, beautifully acted by the cast of a company celebrating its 60th anniversary season.

The story was made into a 1941 film starring Cary Grant, but it is perfect for the stage in 2012 and you have to feel sympathy for the 100-plus people on the waiting list for any returned tickets even after an extra performance has been arranged for the sell-out production.

Set in Brooklyn, New York, the story involves two seemingly charming old spinster sisters with a taste for murder, and three unusual nephews, one a killer on the run with his own feature-changing plastic surgeon in tow, and another who believes he is President Roosevelt.

It is staged - somewhat ironically - in the 'living' room of the old dears' home where bodies are piling up in the cellar and the only apparently sane member of the homicidal family - theatre critic Mortimer Brewster - stumbles on the sinister secret which upsets his wedding plans in case he has the disease.

Gary Pritchard is excellent as Mortimer, almost going out of his mind trying to resolve the situation and fearing for his own sanity while causing the love of his life, Elaine Harper (Becki Jay) to wonder just what is happening to her boyfriend, a hatchet man of critics.


There are delightful performances from Mary Whitehouse and Sheila Grew, the lethal sisters Abby and Martha Brewster. So sweetly misguided they think telling a fib is worse than serving lethal elderberry wine - laced with arsenic, strychnine and a pinch of cyanide - to lonely old men whose bodies are dispatched to the cellar, known as the Panama Canal.

Terrific contributions, too, from Martin Groves (the crackpot bugle-playing Teddy Brewster), Peter Smith (killer crook Jonathan Brewster), and David Stone (weirdo surgeon Dr Einstein).

Smith provides genuine menace as the family's other serial killer who ends up as a Boris Karloff lookalike competing with his aunts in a kind of league table of murder. Alongside him, Stone is a hoot in his role of the nutty surgeon with a German accent of sorts, ready with his bag of surgical implements to change the features of his boss as they attempt to avoid arrest.

There's a lovely end to the tale as Graham Smith, playing the detective Lieutenant Rooney, laughingly brushes aside suggestions that a dozen bodies are buried in the old dears' cellar as he preens himself on the capture of the most-wanted Jonathan Brewster, and the sweet sisters ply a final drink to the mental home superintendent, Mr Witherspoon (Terry Atkinson) who is arranging for their admission to a place of safety!

Other members of an outstanding cast are Robert Onions (Officer O'Hara), Adrian Venables (Officer Brophy), Liam Matthews-Dibbins (Officer Klein), Brian Lycett (Rev Dr Harper) and Alex Barzdo (Mr Gibbs)

The action takes place on a stunning set designed by Martin Groves and the play's excellent director Rosemary Manjunath. Jane James produces Arsenic & Old Lace which is guaranteed to kill off any feelings of depression in the audience. To 21.01.12

Paul Marston 

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