Review: Blithe Spirit

by | November 27, 2022

Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit is an entertaining reminder of why going to the theatre is so much fun. The writer Charles Condomine, seeking inspiration for his next novel in the artificial performance of the occult, invites the medium Madame Arcati to host a very theatrical séance in his living room: the lights have to be dim, she warns him – the clients expect it. The Condomines and their neighbours think it’s all nonsense, but Madame Arcati accidentally summons back Charles’ dead wife Elvira from the afterlife – to the understandable chagrin of his new wife, Ruth. Ruth, who can’t see or hear Elvira, thinks Charles is tricking her (gaslighting her, we might say), and must be made to believe in the supernatural – cue a comedy of manners gone disastrously, enchantingly wrong.

In the hands of Alex Foster at A2 Productions, Charles’ late wife Elvira is turned into a late husband, Evelyn, and the drag queen Miss Take is cast as a raunchy Madame Arcati – the production is also very camp. ‘Camping,’ as Susan Sontag points out in ‘Notes on Camp’, is at the heart of the theatrical experience. “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater”. Sontag even namechecks Coward, who never publicly came out of the closet, but wrote two unperformed plays about homosexuality. This reworking of Blithe Spirit is entirely in his own spirit, all the way up to the drag show at the Blithe Spirit Plush night on Halloween, even if, by Miss Take’s third sex-orgasm-clairvoyance-simulation on stage, the play sometimes tips over more into show than play (and even if, among all the script changes, a slight cut might have gone a long way, since the ghosts’ boredom at not being exorcised is tricky to dramatise without creating the same effect). But it’s very enjoyable indeed.

The play initially poses as a comedy of manners: they sit around and converse in the living room, the maid Edith runs around saying ‘Yes’m’. Ruth complains about how dull it is when Charles tries to be witty; behind the boredom is an exhaustion with the post-Wilde comedy of manners full stop, which this production’s drag queen clairvoyant can explode into fun. Alfie Dry as Miss Take as Madame Arcati is a metatheatrical joy to watch. She towers over the other characters in a series of show-stopping outfits which get whoops from the audience, looks down at the sceptical Dr Bradman with contempt, or sits between Mrs Condomine and Mrs Bradman on a sofa and pushing them onto the sides as she waxes lyrical about her powers. Madame Arcati is a visual symbol of the anarchic power of silliness over the primness of the genre.

“I may be an illusion, but I’m most definitely here,” Daniel McNamee’s Evelyn assures Michael Freeman’s Charles when he comes back to haunt him. Freeman is a fantastic lead, the straight man (or not) to everyone else’s odd man in the comedic set up, but still vain and enigmatic and full of ‘seedy grandeur’ up to his last maniacal monologue. McNamee, moving between taunting seductiveness and the lovelorn poignancy he played in Maurice earlier this term, is very compelling. The gap between the ‘real’ world of the Condomines’ living room, and the ‘other’ world where Evelyn plays chess with Genghis Khan, is bridged by the emotional vulnerability of the spirits. Evelyn, and later Ruth – played by the brilliantly cross Sian Lawrence – are hurt and plaintive and not blithe in the slightest, comically teaming up against their husband, who feels altogether less lifelike than the ghosts onstage. “Surely even an ectoplasmic manifestation has the right to expect a little of the milk of human kindness?” Who among us could disagree? ∎

Blithe Spirit was produced by A2 Productions and directed by Alex Foster.

Words by Clemmie Read.