This production of Arsenic and Old Lace needs a dose of something. It’s not bad enough to warrant seeing off with a measure of arsenic, but a jolly good stimulant wouldn’t go amiss. The old warhorse, a terrific hit in Forties London and then a film starring Cary Grant, takes a very long time to get into its stride under Robin Herford’s ponderous direction.
The two murderous old dears are played by a couple of normally reliable troupers, Angela Thorne and Brigit Forsyth, but here they manage to be bland rather than genteelly mad. It may be that middle-aged, active and vigorous women have to slow down to dodders’ pace to convince us of their antiquity, but - in the era of the “good” doctor Shipman - just a hint of something steelier would be welcome. And there are far too many fluffs and inaccuracies. On the night I attended, Thorne even addressed her innocent nephew Mortimer, more than once, by the name of his evil brother, Jonathan, who had yet to appear.
The fault lies partly with the play which takes a while to warm up, especially for a modern audience which is not, of course, at all surprised by the cadaverous contents of the window seat. The second half is much better, with plot reversals following in quick succession as Jonathan attempts to bring his sibling rivalry to a bloody conclusion while disposing of his latest victim in the already overcrowded cellar-graveyard, presided over by hulking brother Teddy (Mark Heenehan), who thinks he’s Roosevelt.
The criminal double act of Jonathan (Hugh Higginson) and Dr - not Albert but Herman - Einstein (Sylvester McCoy) provides a welcome shot in the arm. Higginson somehow convinces that he is someone who might change his face frequently to avoid detection - the plastic surgery theme is eerily up-to-date - and McCoy, diminutive and indulging in a heavy German accent, is always funny. Having said that, there was a strange moment on what may have been a fateful evening of mistakes when he repeated his first act lines out of context much later in the play. There are, after all, quite enough certifiable characters in this piece without bidding to join them.
The hero, a long-suffering drama critic (what a hostage to fortune that idea was!) is played by Andrew Havill. A gangly man with a bit of a bald patch, he comes into his own when some speed is (at last) required. He has a nice line in dawning double-takes and a pair of legs that resemble discarded pipe-cleaners.
I have a feeling that, unlike the lethal cocktails administered by the Brewster sisters, this production is likely to improve with age.