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Arsenic and Old Lace by Burgess Hill Theatre Club

Fortunately elderberry wine was not on the menu for interval drinks at Burgess Hill Theatre Club’s splendid production of the black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.

Gill Sutton and Jo White were all deadly hospitable innocence as the little ladies, Abbey and Martha Brewster respectively, who dispensed poison with the tipple and filled a basement with the results.

Their strong and witty portayals were only occasionally marred by missing their lines, at least on the opening night.

Theatre critic Mortimer Brewster drew a fine performance from Andy Chalk, telling the ladies who polished off 12 people with masterful understatement: “It’s not a nice thing to do. People won’t understand”. For all his funny lines Chalk’s finest moment came when he actually said nothing while bound and gagged, drawing out a brilliant piece of mime, facially detecting horror and confusion at a terrible fate that he did not eventually meet.

Director Peter Gooding boldly introduced the play as a radio broadcast in which the characters became live on stage, also using off-stage sound effects within sight and sound of the audience. This worked well, although volume levels needed a little more control.

The production was beautifully paced, and Chris Smith was certainly up to speed with a standout portrayal of the barmy Teddy Brewster, given to shouting “Charge!” and imagining he was President Roosevelt.

Evil dripped from the pores of David Plank and Cherry Woodhouse, both confident and convincing in the roles of murderer Jonathan Brewster (what a family!) and female surgical accomplice Einstein.

Mr Witherspoon, a man who seemed as in need of care as the residents of the home he ran, might have been intended as a cameo role but Matt Roberts brought great presence to the character.

The club overcame several changes in cast to produce a thoroughly entertaining evening and a good performance of a play that demands excellent timing and generally got it.

By Phil Dennett