As the saying goes, ‘The Show Must Go On’. With a major cast member struck down with COVID-19, Canberra Repertory’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace opened with director Ian Hart walking through this actor’s part with script in hand. The compromise ensured the production could open as planned, in a short season where every show is precious. Perhaps because of this disruption, the Friday night performance was flabby and underconfident.
Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 black comedy features two nice older sisters Abby (Alice Ferguson) and Martha (Nikki-Lynne Hunter) with a secret: they poison aging familyless men to save them from a lonely future. Their devoted nephew, the theatre-loathing drama critic Mortimer (Jack Shanahan), discovers the family scandal, which threatens to put the kibosh on his engagement to minister’s daughter Elaine (Natalie Waldron).
Conscious that many of the references in the script are dated and will be obscure to a modern audience, director Hart shifts the play from Brooklyn to present Queanbeyan, with ebullient use of mobile phones and appropriate references to Aussie icons and landmarks.
Alice Ferguson and Nikki-Lynne Hunter are well cast as the sweet but formidable sisters, and in considered performances develop a contrast between Ferguson’s prim Abby and Hunter’s kooky Martha. Jack Shanahan throws himself into the part of Mortimer with gusto, fighting to keep the play’s energy high. Natalie Waldron is beguiling as Elaine, Robbie Matthews has presence as mad uncle Bobby, and David Bennett is reliable in a series of colourful cameos. Iain Murray and Mae Schembri are fun as bumbling AFP who wander into the plot.
The play comes unstuck with the introduction of Ian Hart as homicidal maniac Jonathan, the part intended for Rep stalwart Rob de Fries. Hart does not fit the part, and his heavy reliance on the script does not give space for Jonathan's accomplice Dr. Swan (Kayla Ciceran) to build their relationship.
Many of the actors fought hard for laughs, and with broad performances the play lacked the bleak stakes essential for dark comedy. For example, Shanahan’s Mortimer makes his entrance by bowing to the audience and calling for applause, even though the play intends him to be a sane man juggling a family of maniacs. The play never establishes a distinction between sanity and madness, and the talk of murder and death is tension-free. Timing was sometimes wobbly, with actors reacting on blocking cues rather than to the other actors.
The updating of the play is heroic, but so ambitious that it was doomed to fall short. We are told that Bobby thinks he is Robert Menzies (and there is even a great joke about a short period where Bobby thought he was Malcolm Frasier), but he does not act or sound like Pig Iron Bob. He is still recognisable as Theodore Roosevelt, the exuberant US President from the original script. As fun as the gags are, they are often superficial.
The set designed by Andrew Kay is eye-popping and delighted the audience. Two detailed stories provided a huge canvas for frantic antics, without diluting the action by leaving too much empty space.
Director Ian Hart aims for the play to give joy in darkish times, and the production has spirit, but the flippant style pulls the comedy’s sharp teeth. Bad luck forced a heart-breaking choice on the production team, and in the spirit of theatre the cast went ahead with a show they knew would fall short of their aspirations. By the end of the run, this could evolve into anarchic spree, but it is not on par with the excellent productions Rep has been staging.