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Arsenic and Old Lace at the Criterion

Sisters Abby and Martha Brewster offer Mr Witherspoon (Craig Mckay) a glass of elderberry wine. Photo courtesy of the Criterion Theatre.

Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring, The Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry, running until 16 December 2023.

Review by Alison Manning


Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring, currently on at the Criterion Theatre in Earlsdon, Coventry, opens on the seemingly respectable home of the elderly Brewster sisters, enjoying a visit from the vicar who lives next door. The sisters Abby and Martha, expertly played by Christine Evans and Chris Ingall respectively, exude charm, sweetness, kindness and charity. No one would expect that they could harm a fly, let alone a man. But hidden secrets start to come to light as the play progresses.

Will people discover what is really in their cellar, where they encourage their delusional nephew Teddy, who believes he is President Roosevelt, to dig locks for the Panama canal? And what is the special recipe for their homemade elderberry wine? Add in their other nephew, the theatre critic Mortimer with his girlfriend, the vicar’s daughter, Elaine, and the return of the black sheep of the family, their other long-lost nephew Jonathan, with his sidekick Dr Einstein, and the stage is set for an excellent show of drama, dialogue, intrigue, innocence, misunderstanding and murder.

Jonathan Brewster (Lukasz Nowacki) and Dr. Einstein  (Rebecca Fenlon) scheming together.

Despite its dark subject matter, this is a very witty play, exuding humour throughout, with comic timing, excellently delivered, and farcical moments, with critically timed interruptions and characters, especially members of the police force, failing to see what is happening right in front of them. The theatre critic jokes particularly hit home with me, including talk of saving time by starting to write the review on the way to the theatre, and the interminable plays that critics are forced to sit through- this wasn’t one of those, honestly!

The idea of theatre is explored, with Mortimer talking about the play he has just had to review, asking if people in plays act intelligently and rationally, heeding warnings when given, in a witty parallel of his own situation where he fails to pay attention to the attempts to alert him to danger and carries on regardless. We are also forced to comically question whether the characters being portrayed in front of us are acting as real life people or as characters in a play and it blurs the lines between what is real and what is fictional.

Brothers Teddy ( James Hammond) and Mortimer (Ted Mcgowan) Brewster. Photo courtesy of the Criterion Theatre.

This adds an extra dimension to Teddy’s belief that he is Teddy Roosevelt and the sisters’ belief that they are ultimately innocent. The excellent acting and the way the actors coped well with any minor prop hiccups made us almost believe that they were supposed to happen- the slight trip up the stairs, the matches failing to light, the narrow avoidance of setting the tablecloth on fire…

The play also deals with the idea of murder through different characters’ perceptions of it. Some characters see it almost as an art to be finessed, others as theatre, especially the policeman who describes in depth the plot of his prospective play but is blind to the attempts at foul play before him. Other characters see murder as a charitable kindness, to be applied to lonely people they feel sorry for, wanting them to be at peace. Some characters simply cannot believe in the possibility of murder and fail to see the evidence before them.

This production is not only hugely entertaining but leaves you a lot to think about. The atmosphere is reinforced by the detailed set of the Brewster sisters’ home where all the action takes place, with carefully painted staircase wooden panelling and printed wallpaper transporting you to their ancestral home in mid-twentieth century Brooklyn, where, behind the veneer of charming gentility, all is not quite what it seems. It even made me slightly cautious about sipping my interval (warmingly mulled) wine, but thankfully it was not only free of arsenic, but also of strychnine and “just a pinch” of cyanide too!

Arsenic and Old Lace is on at The Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry, till Saturday 16 December. For more details:


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