by Noël Coward; dir Mary MacDonald
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
4 – 9 February 2013
A core of Coward’s plays is likely to remain with us for a while yet and this is certainly one of them. Like Wodehouse, his characters live outside the world that most of us inhabit and yet we are happy to be drawn into their domain and feel concern for their issues.
Blithe Spirit tells of the events that arise when an author, for reasons of research, brings back a dead wife from beyond the pale with the help of a local necromancer. Not surprisingly the author’s present wife and the spirit of the last one fail to become best of friends.
Coward’s characters need a deft lightness of touch and, frequently, the importance of not being earnest is a useful guiding light. Martin Eggleston’s Charles delivers this is spades as he sashays confidently around the set avoiding the worst of his two wives’ barbed attacks.
If John McCririck and Margaret Rutherford ever had a love child it could well be Chris Carpenter’s Madam Arcati who, with a manic energy, summons Elvira from the other side, then forgets how best to return her. Who doesn’t like an English eccentric, and here we have much to enjoy.
By contrast the spirit of Elvira is a self-interested, svelte, wraith the colour of a healthy herring, who mischievously does her best to make the lives of those around her increasingly stressful. Julie Godfrey drifts around the set like a leaf in the wind looking, and delivering, the goods.
Unfortunately the actor playing Ruth Condomine, Charles’ present wife, seems, strangely, to have opted for a wig that puts one in mind of Acorn Antiques. Rather than the haughty disdain that is generally Coward’s default she offers a sort of suburban irritation that belongs elsewhere. Square pegs and round holes I’m afraid.
Sarah Cullum affirms the dictum that there are no small parts but only small actors. Her Edith, the maid, appears early and each time you are left hoping for her imminent return. Undoubtedly a treasure of a treasure!
We are given a functional, acceptable set which serves the play well enough, but with two intervals the play may be slightly long for its light hearted content. Nevertheless, the director, Mary MacDonald, has given us a pleasant distraction on a winter evening.
The success of Coward’s plays relies mainly on his wit, elegance and sophistication. In this production we get the wit but very little elegance or sophistication. As a result, although it has its moments, the evening seems over long.
In this story of the Condomines, Charles and Ruth, and the upsets to their lives resulting from the summoning of the spirit of his former wife, Elvira, Mary MacDonald’s direction, in the main, keeps the pace going nicely, despite there being several clumsy moments. But I felt a tighter rein could and should have been applied to some of the portrayals.
First, the good points. For me, performance of the evening comes from Julie Godfrey as Elvira. She captures the Coward manner perfectly. Her playing has style and is vocally excellent. Christine Carpenter does well as Madame Arcati. It’s a Margaret Rutherford take-off, whereas I would like to have seen something more original, but, in the context, it works. I began by thinking that Sarah Cullum’s maid, Edith, was going to develop into a junior Mrs Overall but, in fact, she delivers some assured moments as the performance progresses, and her appearances become a delight. In the unrewarding roles of Dr and Mrs Bradman, John Nichols and Linda Smith-Blain deliver all that is necessary.
My main problem was with the Condomines. As writer Charles, Martin Eggleston was far too frenetic from the start. As a result, his increasing frustrations with his wives really had nowhere to go and, although he moved well (apart from his increasingly irritating propping up of the mantelpiece), here was an instance of that missing sophistication.
Chris Ives acted wife Ruth well enough, but her appearance was totally wrong and blame for this must lie at the director’s door. This was where some of the elegance was missing. Ruth Condomine may be no great beauty (the script states as much), but she should be supremely elegant. Ms Ives was ill-served by both the choice of wardrobe and by the wig. None of the chosen dresses was flattering, and the red number was particularly dowdy. Such a shame.
The set was attractive and served its purpose, although I thought it was slightly over-furnished, resulting in some awkward moves, and the use of the pouffe for the séance scenes was vaguely ridiculous. Yes, I know, sight lines and all that, but still…
All in all, then, only a partially successful evening, and I don’t think the Master would have been all that thrilled.