Written by the incomparable Noël Coward, Blithe Spirit premièred in 1941 in London’s West End and ran for nearly two-thousand performances. It is frequently revived and has been adapted as a film and as a musical.
Done well, Coward’s plays are still a delight, and to do them well requires paying close attention to many details. Co-Directors Mo Johnson and Kristina Vonow have done just that, and their production for Top of the Torren’s Theatre Group’s (TOTT) easily establishes that Coward’s sparkling script can still pull the laughs even eighty years after they have been written.
The plot follows novelist Charles Condomine (played by Heath Gladigau) who wants to learn about the occult for a novel he is writing. He invites two friends over (Dr & Mrs Bradman, played by Tim Lane and Kathyryn Roth) to join him and Madame Arcati (Turea Blyth), a dubious spirit medium, for a séance, but Arcati inadvertently ‘summons’ his first wife, Elvira (Phoebe Wilson), who then with much mischief proceeds to disrupt his relationship with Ruth (Helen Lane), his second wife. Elvira still lusts after Charles and schemes for him to join her ‘on the other side’, but things go awry, and Charles is left unmoved, but eventually very much alone! It turns out that it wasn’t Arcati who was responsible for the ectoplasmic manifestations, it was Condomine’s maid Edith (Eden Lane) who turns out to be the ‘real’ psychic.
Johnson and Vonow’s set is beautifully authentic – it looks as though a 1940’s drawing room from a comfortable English countryside house has been magically transported to the Mount Pleasant Soldiers Memorial Hall where TOTT perform. From the sponge painted walls to the period furniture and stage dressings, it looks perfect. And the costumes add icing to the cake. The ladies’ gowns are exquisite, as are their hairdressings (especially Roth) and accessories. The gentlemen are resplendent in their wide lapelled dinner suits and Gladigau’s smoking jacket is a nice touch. Arcati is dressed as eccentric landed gentry with outrageous flowing garments and feathered headdresses that give Blyth much scope for exaggerated movement around the stage (and she seizes the opportunity!). The stage lighting is adequate, but nothing special, and it doesn’t really need to be either.
So, the production looks wonderful, and, pleasingly, the cast rise to the occasion and give credible performances. Their diction is appropriately Middle-class English, and they mostly capture the lilt of Coward’s text. Gladigau’s Charles is appropriately domineering and condescending. Early in the play he establishes that Condomine is very much the rake and treats women almost as objects. To a contemporary audience such a characterisation can easily draw contempt, but Johnson and Vonow have quite rightly directed Gladigau to also be the object of mild derision. It’s a nice balance. Lane imbues her Ruth with a controlled degree of haughtiness that almost makes one understand why Charles reacts to her in the way he does. Lane works her face very expressively – almost too much at times – and less on appropriate body language. Both Gladigau and Lane frequently anticipate a punch line before it is given, rather than listening closely to the dialogue and then responding to it. (Reacting too early often gives the impression of acting a role, rather than being the character.) Blyth’s Arcati was a delight: energetic, idiosyncratic, suitably OTT (pun intended!), and always controlled. Blyth creates a believable character who grabs – no, demands! – your attention every time she sweeps on stage. Her byplay with Dr Bradman was delightfully loaded with sexual innuendo. Tim Lane makes his community theatre debut in this production, and although his inexperience shows, his Dr Bradman is quite credible. He combines very well with Rothe who essentially takes the lead in their on-stage work. Rothe is quite simply wonderful as the quintessential upper middle class English lady who has more prestige and position than brain power! Wilson’s costume and makeup as Elvira is a highlight. Dressed in a shimmering fitting silver gown with pale silver body paint, bright red lips and nails, and a silver blonde wig, she looks ectoplasmic to perfection. A central conceit of the show is that when she appears on stage, she is not visible to everyone, and the costuming greatly assists creating that illusion. Wilson looks the part, and easily and fluidly embraces all corners of the stage. Credit goes to all actors on stage who ‘refuse’ to see her! The cast is rounded out with a gentle performance from Eden Lane (yes, another Lane – they are all from the same family!) who plays Edith with much speed as she tries to efficiently tend to her household chores.
TOTT is another community group that has weathered the trials and tribulations of the ongoing COVID storm and has emerged intact if not weather beaten to an extent. Their production of Blithe Spirit is enjoyable and a credit to them, and it had the capacity audience hanging on every word and in stitches of laughter. Indeed, it raised their spirits!