By Paul Campion
In line with the current vogue of serving show-themed drinks in the BLT Bar, the tipple on offer for ‘Blithe Spirit’ was the very Coward-esque dry Martini. Which was entirely apt, as this production proved to be a winning concoction of Coward’s dry wit and some deliciously intoxicating performances.
Written in less than two weeks at the height of the Blitz, ‘Blithe Spirit’ was Coward’s attempt to cheer up the beleaguered British public. It did much more than that, going on to notch up a record-breaking 1,997 performances in the West End and becoming one of the best-loved comedies of all time.
For those few unfortunates unfamiliar with the plot it goes like this: as research for his latest novel, author Charles Condomine invites a spiritualist – Madame Arcati – to conduct a séance at one of his dinner parties. Unfortunately, she only succeeds in summoning the ghost of Charles’ deceased first wife Elvira, who proceeds to make life hell for him and his current wife Ruth.
The play bristles with some of Coward’s wittiest exchanges, such as the moment when Charles – who is firmly in the doghouse and trying to make awkward conversation – asks Ruth whether there is anything interesting in ‘The Times’ and is met with the acid riposte “Don’t be silly, Charles”.
Such sophisticated, expertly-crafted dialogue only works when delivered in a clipped, precise way. Emma Sweeney did so to perfection. Her diction, delivery and timing were a joy to behold (and hear), making her perfect for the relentlessly logical and rather domineering Ruth. It’s only January, but this performance has already set the bar high.
At her side, Patrick Neylan made an excellent Charles, having not just the correct look and bearing, but also bringing a befuddled exasperation to the role, particularly in the farcical scenes when Charles is speaking to the ghostly Elvira (who can’t be seen by Ruth) and Ruth thinks he’s talking to her.
When it first appeared, some criticised ‘Blithe Spirit’ for its jokey attitude to death. But this play is really about marriage and how an unhappy one can be a kind of death in itself. At first, Charles and Ruth appear content, but it becomes obvious that their relationship is based on tolerance, not happiness. The catalyst for revealing this is the appearance of Elvira, who immediately sets about winning Charles back. As this mischievous free spirit (pardon the pun), Holly Hewitt was enchanting. From her first shimmering appearance she pouted, teased and seduced her way into Charles’ heart – and ours, too. Aided by effective makeup and a gorgeously ghostly dress, she was utterly entrancing.
Likewise, Paul Green and Ann Morgan made a charming Doctor and Mrs Bradman, the former bringing an appealing bluffness to his role while the latter marked her BLT debut with a delightful performance that certainly made the most of the character.
The old adage about there being no small parts, only small actors was also proved by Deborah Hedges, making a welcome return to BLT as Edith, the terrified maid. This is a small role but a potential scene-stealer and Deborah exploited every comic possibility through her physicality and superb facial expressions.
As with Lady Bracknell in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, in any production of ‘Blithe Spirit’ the spotlight inevitably falls on Madame Arcati. Like the fearsome Lady B, this is one of the great comic roles in theatre and a challenge for any actress. The biggest mistake would be to go over the top – Arcati is eccentric, not mad. She may be somewhat ‘away with the fairies’, but she’s no fool – her withering put-downs of her detractors’ scepticism show that. So all praise to Karen O’Neill for staying just the right side of ‘bonkers’. That said, there were moments when I felt the character needed a little more eccentric abandon, particularly in the séance scenes. But on the whole, this Arcati was an endearing blend of ‘arty’ and ‘hearty’.
Having once directed this play myself I know what technical challenges it poses, so I admired the ways they were tackled here. Jan Greenhough’s simple but effective set included a very realistic-looking fire, adding a suitably eerie glow to the séance and enabled some very convincing ghostly ‘vandalism’ in the final scene. Billowing net curtains and well-judged sound design combined to enhance each supernatural appearance while, as mentioned previously, makeup and costumes were spot-on throughout.
All in all then, let’s raise a very dry Martini to director Stevie Hughes and his team for giving us a show that warmed our hearts (and dare I say raised our spirits?) on an extremely cold January evening.