Trinity Theatre is putting on their production of Arsenic And Old Lace all this week. Here the play’s Director, Helen Thorpe, tells the Times all about the American classic piece of 1930s comedy drama that sees two old ladies bumping off elderly men and burying them in their basement – for a laugh
The reason I decided to put on Arsenic And Old Lace goes back to my youth. My father introduced me to the influential 1930s film director Frank Capra and I instantly fell in love with his work.
He made some truly wonderful gems, including It Happened One Night, Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and he always worked with great actors like James Stewart, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, who starred in his version of Joseph Kesselring’s play Arsenic And Old Lace.
Capra’s movies are so quintessentially American; they are warm, witty and richly entertaining.
So when he took Kesselring’s charming story about a New York theatre critic who finds out his adorable, beloved aunts are dispatching elderly male visitors to their lodging house with poisoned elderberry wine, and turned it into a silly, sweet screwball comedy where the action goes at a cracking pace, it was a sure-fire hit with me.
Seeing the film again inspired me to pick up the script and give it a read, and here we are!
The main thing that appeals to me about this piece is that it’s a bit like a good Agatha Christie work, in that murders abound, there’s a bit of perky romance, and quirky, interesting characters are scattered throughout.
There’s also plenty of action, a smattering of thrills and a good slice of humour. But in addition to all this, there’s an interesting backstory – as Arsenic And Old Lace is actually partly based on fact.
There was a lodging house – known as the Goerz House – which Kesselring lived in, and the murderous old lady plot was directly inspired by similar events in Windsor, Connecticut.
The relevance of the story for today is that we still get these extraordinary characters and events happening to normal people every day, whatever the country.
When putting on my own version of this classic, I knew right from the start that the production I wanted to do needed to be very much in tune with Capra’s trademark black comedy style.
In terms of the casting process, for me it’s all about the fit; getting the right people together and testing they can give me what I am looking for. That is excellent comedic acting skills with feet firmly entrenched into a genuine and truthful performance.
There also has to be frisson between the characters – especially the two old ladies – and I have been extremely lucky to find two former drama school-trained professional actresses for these pivotal roles. They are delightful to watch, have great chemistry and have taken the aunts to a whole new level.
I wanted to keep my script and staging similar to that of the film – but in terms of the ladies’ ages, I made the decision to cast them as being in their early 60s, as I think it’s important that they move around and keep up with the farcical style of the play.
The cast is stellar, and I have added a few of my own touches to the production to spice things up to make the audience feel like they’re watching a movie. I’ve included black and white film footage and formatted the action so it’s similar to that of the actual movie.
It’s a little unusual for amateurs to weave media into a show like this, but more and more of the professionals are doing it, and as I always say, ‘If it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for us!’
We had great fun filming the escape from the asylum and the killing of Mr Spenalzo! But come and see the show for all of this – I don’t want to reveal too much here…
I have been putting on productions at Trinity for the past seven years. It’s a very special theatre to me as this is where I first cut my teeth on directing post my training, and I’ve never looked back.
It’s hard to say what I love most about directing. Sometimes I think I am crazy as it’s such a responsibility and, like an actor, your reputation is completely on the line.
It’s also probably the most challenging and creative process you can do as you’re taking a script of whatever genre, age or style, and reading and connecting with it with an objective to give it life.
There is no other feeling like it, and it certainly makes me proud to be part of the wonderful world of theatre and to have the chance to work with some amazing people.
Arsenic And Old Lace is on at Trinity Theatre until Saturday October 22. Matinees are at 2.30pm on Wednesday and Saturday in addition to daily performances at 7.30pm. To book tickets, which cost from £10 for afternoon shows and from £13 for evening ones, visit www.trinitytheatre.net