South House Play: “Arsenic and Old Lace”

Chelsea, World War Two, a genteel boarding house run by three charming elderly sisters. Doilies and “old lace” were much in evidence,…

Chelsea, World War Two, a genteel boarding house run by three charming elderly sisters. Doilies and “old lace” were much in evidence, but clearly all was not as it seemed. South’s House play opened with eight sequined LVth Southies leading a sisterly dance. Yet, amongst the white feathers, lurked the strutting black swan of South Play1..NEWSJames House, hinting at the sinister, farcical undertones of this otherwise respectable pensioner drama. For this trinity of sisters may claim to be selfless Christian ladies, but as two ashen-faced corpses (Ella Gurdon and Abi Doherty) morosely manoeuvred the set into place, it was hard to believe.

Allegra Clark’s Reverend Harper contributed to the pious atmosphere, with her daughter Elaine (Kate McGovern) agreeing to marry the respectable Mortimer Brewster. Few would envy Mortimer’s family situation. His brother Arthur (a convincingly madcap Angus McConnell-Wood) believes he is the Iron Duke, dividing his time between raucous cavalry shouts of “Charge!” up the stairs and quieter digs for the Panama Canal in the basement.

The revelation of what lies in this basement shocks Mortimer, with Joe Gill convincingly portraying the exasperation of a lone voice of reason amidst a mad house. For beneath the stairs lie 11 “very dead” bodies (12 if you count the one under the window seat). The Brewster sisters believe any lonely lodgers deserve their “charity”. This particular cause takes the shape of elderberry wine laced with arsenic and “just a pinch” of cyanide… West country helper Bessie (played with comic aloofness by Gabi Hill) may try to keep the madness – “tea!”, “wine!”, “cake!” – of the Brewster family home from spilling over, yet she too is complicit in their “charitable” causes.

The return of Jonathan Brewster (James House), the black swan of the family who has lived a “strange life”, elevates the farcical scenario. His Scottish accent, reconstructed face and crocodile skin shoes jar with the comfortable Chelsea setting, as do his entourage in tow. Tom Berry gave a lively turn as East German Dr Einstein, Amy Slade proved an effective assistant, whilst Alice Eamey offered a memorable performance, wrapped in fur, and playing herself!

Alice’s example highlights the successful way in which South Housemistress, and director, Ruth Frett took liberties with the script to elevate the drama and heighten the student involvement. For this truly was a whole House play. The cast was thirty-two strong, and had it all: policemen, dancers, corpses. Anoushka Muir led the former with confident aplomb, wSouth Play.2.NEWShilst Jemima Young’s corpse was played with composure and realism, despite being manhandled roughly on several occasions! Credit must go to the backstage team who worked well to create a convincing 1940s pensioner look, with the sisters memorably emerging in gowns and curlers for the play’s late-night finale.

At the heart of the play though were these sisters. Not quite the “weird sisters” who make up Shakespeare’s three witches, these were all loveable – if murderous – characters. Jess Morley’s Ethel is a talent to watch, as the make-up hid her IVth form status. Cecile Zoet’s vocal intonations were almost unnervingly convincing in their geriatric nature, which she combined effectively with a very physical performance, aided by her ever-quivering walking stick. Finally, there was Martha Brewster, played with obvious relish by Bea Stephenson, who also co-directed. Slipping, sliding and wobbling across the stage, Martha supported herself with not one but two bedraggled walking sticks, which seemed a natural extension of herself.

Their sororal success was confirmed as the audience cheered their escape from the asylum, and more importantly, their taking the lead against Jonathan in the Brewster body-count race. Final score: 14 – 12, just check your glass next time you’re invited to South for a drink.


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