‘Blithe Spirit’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by July 23, 2015

‘Blithe Spirit’ is a comic and somewhat frivolous ghost story, written during World War II, by Noël Peirce Coward in Portmeirion on the north coast of Wales. The title ‘Blithe Spirit’ was taken from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘To a Skylark’ written 120 years earlier.

The book adaptation was produced as a play (starring Cecil Parker, Fay Compton and Margaret Rutherford) in London’s West End in 1941. It had the ‘longest run’ record of 1,997 performances. After the radio drama, television play and musical, ‘Blithe Spirit’ was in 1945 made into a successful film, this was only David Lean’s fourth film as a director, yet his third Coward film. ‘Blithe Spirit’ was soon followed by Coward’s major classic ‘Brief Encounter’.

After the war, the theatres suffered and so Coward metamorphosed into a cabaret and TV star, with songs such as ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’.

He was knighted in 1970, and in 1973 died peacefully in Jamaica, his home for 20 years.

 

This wonderfully funny 2 hour 30 minute production is being produced and presented by the Black Swan State Theatre Company, at the Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, Northbridge each evening at 7.30 until 9th August.

 

Sadly Perth actor, Roz Hammond, the versatile star of Shaun Micallef’s ‘Mad as Hell’, has had to withdraw from the show due to illness; but she has been replaced by Equity award winning Alison van Reeken. Having only been given the part three days ago, Alison carried a script – which she subtly referred to infrequently. Most actors have a 5 week rehearsal period, and yet she has captured her quirky character perfectly. The facial expressions, body language and diction could not be improved upon, a stellar performance.

 

It is 1940. The setting is the cavernous sitting room in the Condomines mansion near Folkestone, on the south coast of England (award winning set designer Bryan Woltjen). The cream painted room has a cathedral ceiling. On one side is a fireplace, a wall covered in oil paintings and electric gramophone. At the rear of the room is a huge arch, with plush red velvet drapes hung on each side. On the other wall are patio doors with ceiling height windows above. These doors overlook a well-tended garden. The scene is lit with warm lighting (lighting designer Jon Buswell) that subtly changed as the day went by, until the pink sky outside gave a cosy glow. When the ghost appeared, a blue white follow spot gave an amazing iridescence and genuinely eerie appearance.

The costumes have been very well researched (costume designer Bryan Woltjen), from the shimmering white of the ghost’s outfit, to the perky feathered hats (milliner Susi Rigg). Mrs Condomine wore a full-length, dark green velvet dress, a particularly difficult material to sew, but the style and finish was superb (costume makers Jennifer Edwards, Jennifer Stewart). Most of the time Madame Arcati wore an almost hippy outfit, however, she had the most immaculate, pastel checked, flared short jacket and knee-length culottes. Mr Condomine wore a pair of red Turkish / Arabian curled-toed slippers, a very popular souvenir with the ‘desert rat ‘soldiers returning from the war in the Middle East.

The hair styles (consultant Virginia Hawdon) and wig construction (Lynn Ferguson) not only had to reflect the 1940s, but make the actors that little bit eccentric.

The visual creations, lighting, costumes and set, were all exceptional.

 

          Before the1940s tableau-style proscenium curtain was raised, we were treated to composer, Ash Gibson Greig’s idiosyncratic overture. This was a clever blend of so many topics from the play, there were the eerie ghostly sounds, the bouncy madcap freedom of the acting, and even the tinkle of the strange Madame Arcati’s bicycle bell could be heard in the music. Clever and innovative writing.

        The very nervous, enthusiastic but slightly dippy housemaid, Edith (Ella Hetherington – delightful) is trying to please her long-suffering employer, Ruth Condomine (Adriane Daff) by not running around the house. Sitting in his chair supping a wine is Ruth’s husband, Charles Condomine (Adam Booth). He is a successful novelist, who wishes to learn about the occult for a book he is writing. Charles has organised for an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati (Alison van Reeken) to hold a séance at his house. The family GP, Dr Bradman (Michael Loney) and his sycophantic wife, Mrs Bradman (Michelle Fornasier) are invited along to witness ‘the happening’.

     When the guests have left for home, Charles’s first wife, Elvira (Jo Morris), turns up at the house. Elvira is still very much in love with Charles, which causes Ruth a great deal of distress. The jealousy becomes really serious when a vase gets thrown and the dirty tricks become vicious. After a highly dramatic finish, who actually won Charles’ hand, Ruth or Elvira?

 

Thankfully WA director and NIDA graduate, Jeffery Jay Fowler, has had years of theatrical experience including playwriting, acting and direction, winning many awards on the way, this enabled him to capture the unique Coward style perfectly. Coward’s slightly dated dialogue requires accurate intonation and pacing, with a precise body language to create the full effect of this classic. The humour contained in the personalities and subtle writing, rather than straight jokes and one-liners. Fowler and his terrific cast were totally in tune.

Credit should go to stage manager, Georgia Landré-Ord and her assistant, Claudia Blagaich – they worked for their money.

This magnificent cast has conquered every little expression and twitch, making the whole show exciting to today’s audience. Jo Morris was almost balletic as she flitted across the floor. The Bradmans gave that extra sparkle to the séance sequence. I have always admired Adriane Daff’s work, but this performance is her best yet. The chemistry between Charles Condomine and his two wives was convincing and electric.

Once again, congratulations to Alison van Reeken on mastering such a difficult challenge.

A terrific presentation of ‘a rave from the grave’.