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Inverness theatre group made vintage 40s comedy fizz with pzazz

By Margaret Chrystall

The Florians: Arsenic & Old Lace

Florians Theatre

5 stars

Arsenic & Old Lace is one of those 1940s black and white movies from director Frank Capra where Cary Grant is young and the comedy one-liners come thick and fast.

Mortimer (Scott Crichton) and Elaine (Jo Galloway). Picture: Matthias Kremer
Mortimer (Scott Crichton) and Elaine (Jo Galloway). Picture: Matthias Kremer

But first there was Joseph Kesselring’s play.

And if you are sitting in the front row of a packed Florians Theatre with a notebook and pen ready to write a review, it doesn’t take very long to realise that the playwright had an axe to grind with theatre critics.

He must have had a pretty hard time from them too, as he has an awful lot of fun in the play getting his own back with a whole series of barbed comments that raised a lot of laughs with The Florians’ audience. And the Cary Grant character Mortimer is a theatre critic who takes some terrible liberties with his responsibilities.

“I can save time if I write my review on the way to the theatre!” Mortimer reveals. What, write about it before he’s seen the play?!!

And when he proposes and is accepted by Elaine the effervescent minister’s daughter next door he is elated and tells us: “I might just give that play tonight a good notice!”

Shocking behaviour!

But to be honest, the play in front of us in The Florians’ presentation was nothing like the “stinker” Mortimer claimed he had to see. And it would have been a mean-spirited reviewer who wouldn't have recognised a classic lovingly worshipped in the hands of director Trevor Nicol.

The prospects were good from the beginning, as the company scored a hit a few years ago with their production of Harvey, a similar style of ‘screwball’ comedy where The Florians had nailed the genre while having a lot of fun with it.

Arsenic & Old Lace is set in the Brooklyn home of two kind, elderly sisters who welcome strangers into their home.

“The spirit of Brooklyn is friendliness,” says Abby Brewster, though as we discover, that really means well-intentioned murder.

And the success of the play depends on us feeling the pain of Mortimer, their nephew – who quickly learns his aunts are killing off lonely strangers with a nice glass of elderberry wine and his mad brother Teddy is burying the bodies in the cellar. Can Mortimer sort it all out, keep Elaine (a sparkling Jo Galloway) innocent of the worst and not end up in jail himself?

The Florians' Arsenic & Old Lace – Aileen Hendry and Caroline Nicol asthe Brewster sisters (left) and delusional Teddy (Tom Masterton). Picture: Matthias Kremer
The Florians' Arsenic & Old Lace – Aileen Hendry and Caroline Nicol asthe Brewster sisters (left) and delusional Teddy (Tom Masterton). Picture: Matthias Kremer

Add in a couple of friendly Irish cops, Brewster brother Jonathan the psychopath with his own misguided plastic surgeon Dr Einstein, and a series of lonely ‘victims’ – and you’ve got a busy stage and a lot of fast action to enjoy.

A front row seat also meant the chance to enjoy the detail that had gone into the design onstage, a set with numerous doors and a flight of stairs, mahogany furniture, good china and antique glass for the elderberry wine and costumes that felt ‘right’, from delusional Teddy’s Teddy Roosevelt Panama hat to Abby and sister Martha’s slightly dated for the play’s era, turn-of-the-century velvet outfits. The lighting in the tricky windowseat scenes – 'bodies' manoeuvred in and out in semi-darkness and silhouette was a challenge well met by the technical crew.

There were a few prompts needed when lines slipped from memory as the drama raced on.

But the counterbalance might be the well-studied American accents, and deep understanding each actor seemed to have of what made their characters tick. That was even present in cameo roles, such as Richard Miemczyk as no-nonsense, world-weary Lieutenant Rooney or Simon Lyall, scooping up and adding character to three small roles, including disapproving Rev Dr Harper.

Standouts included a newcomer with inspired timing, Scott Crichton as Mortimer, who echoed the slightly over-signalled body language Cary Grant showed in the film – a flourish with a twisted hand here or crazily-staring eyes there.

Nicholas Nicol revelled in the Peter Lorre-esque voice and German accent of plastic surgeon Dr Einstein, making us aware the sidekick was more than slightly wary of his psychopathic ‘friend’ Jonathan – as you might be if you had made your patient look like Boris Karloff! And as Jonathan, Martin Anderson added a sinister looming physical presence.

Tom Masterton had a lot of fun as the delusional Teddy who thought he was President Teddy Roosevelt, his noisy charges with bugle up the stairs energetic enough to make the audience jump!

Sisters Abby (Caroline Nicol) and Martha Brewster (Aileen Hendry. Picture: Matthias Kremer
Sisters Abby (Caroline Nicol) and Martha Brewster (Aileen Hendry. Picture: Matthias Kremer

Much hangs or falls on the twittering innocence of the Brewster sisters and Caroline Nicol as Abby had a lot to do and effortlessly persuaded of the sisters’ warped goodness, ably supported by Aileen Hendry as Martha.

A lot of the tension comes from keeping the truth from the neighbourhood cops – Ian Shearer as Officer Brophy and Euan Sinclair as play-writing Officer O’Hara, both excelling at lovable and braincell-lite.

This production fizzed with pzazz, majored on an eye for detail and enjoyed the luxury of a cast of actors who made it look easy to bring Kesselring’s characters to convincing life.

At one point early in the play, Mortimer’s Aunt Abby defends him to his future disapproving father-in-law the Rev Dr Harper.

She says: “He says the theatre can’t last much longer anyway … give it another year or two, perhaps.”

Luckily, almost 80 years on, with a group like The Florians, so passionate about bringing drama to life, it’s just one more thing Mortimer the reluctant theatre critic was wrong about.

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