Review by Ivy Wigmore
Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in 1941, at least in part to serve as a distraction from the Second World War. Writing about first night, Coward noted that the audience “had to walk across planks laid over the rubble caused by a recent air raid to see a light comedy about death.”
The play takes place in a parlour that seems straight out of Coward’s era, right down to the drinks trolley. In fact, the whole performance was faithful to the spirit of those times and that of the playwright. We might have been in 1941, and there was not a false step throughout to jar us out of our state of suspended disbelief, so we settled happily into it. Charles and Ruth Condomine are classic Coward characters, witty, urbane and upper class. Daniel Briere and Bryde MacLean (respectively) were perfect in the roles, delivering Coward’s sophisticated repartee without ever seeming overly superficial. Even in light comedy, we need to be able to relate to the characters and understand their struggles while we laugh at them. MacLean and Briere were both superb, their characters fully realized. Joshua Browne and Leah Pritchard performed ably as Doctor and Mrs. Bradman, Pritchard doing double duty as Edith: the gawky, awkward housemaid whose secret ability is eventually revealed.
Gracie Finley played Madame Arcati, a medium brought in on something less than good faith. Ostensibly engaged to contact the spirit world, she was really brought in to supply fodder for a book Charles is writing about the occult. He had hoped to catch Arcati using tricks of the trade that he could document. Finley played the spirit wrangler with fierce physicality, flinging herself into the part with gusto and embodying the medium with every moment, word and expression. All with total dedication and seriousness, no matter how outlandish her behaviour. Finley was clearly enjoying herself, and so were we—she was flat-out wonderful.
Madame Arcati had her triumphs as well: Charles’ deceased first wife, Elvira (played by Suzanne Roberts Smith) came shimmering onto the stage as a product of the seance. Elvira was invisible to Ruth, which set the stage for comic misunderstandings as Charles’ comments to the former were taken by the latter to be intended for her.
Elvira flounced, flirted, flaunted herself and taunted Charles. Clearly she had been childish as an earthly being, and apparently had not matured appreciably in the spirit world. Roberts-Smith’s performance was over the top, which suited the part. Speaking of over the top, my husband—and no doubt other interested parties—watched attentively for a seemingly inevitable wardrobe malfunction. It never did happen, but Elvira’s face was well worth watching too. Blithe spirit she was, at some points, and at others scheming, gleeful, bored, maniacal, petulant, lustful and/or furious.
Blithe Spirit is longish but never drags. In the spirit of criticism, I’ll say that I prefer the David Lean ending—but that’s all I’ve got. It is, as Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph wrote “the outrageous frivolity with which Coward treats mortality that makes the piece so bracing.” Seventy-five years on, Blithe Spirit is as much a tonic as ever.