Blithe Spirit is a bit of an old war horse of a play but the almost full house that I was part of for a matinee of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s production suggests that one of the longest running and most popular stage comedies ever written is not ready to fade away just yet. Noel Coward wrote it very quickly and he knew from the start that he had the makings of a hit. It is light, witty and very well constructed, a perfect diversion for its early wartime audiences and still a fine way to spend part of your Christmas today. In fact Blithe Spirit is so well made that it has even survived countless lacklustre or overplayed amateur productions down the years, a good few of which I have sat through, and so it was a real treat to see it well acted and well directed. It was like seeing an old master which has had all the brown discoloured varnish and over-painting removed so that it is able to shine and show you parts of the image that you never even knew were there.
The two characters who have suffered most from well meaning amateurs are Edith and in particular Madame Arcati and it was good to see them both played truthfully, without exaggeration. You really mustn’t overact in Coward- the pleasure is all in the speed and brightness of the dialogue and nothing should get in the way of that. Madam Arcati may be a figure of fun to the Condomines but she is deadly serious about herself and after all she does manage to conjure up two spirits even if she isn’t quite sure how it happened. Janine Birkett shows us this beautifully. Helen Macfarlane does the same job for Edith in a heartfelt and concentrated performance. Edith is very funny, but not to herself, and this is what is at the heart of all great farce.
Charles and Ruth Condomine are beautifully played, absolutely in period, by Kieran Buckeridge and Clare Corbett. They are a very believable couple and keep up the early pace well as the scene is set for the plot. Ruth is a slightly thankless part in that she has to carry a lot of the weight of the play without being given many of the killer lines. She is reacting to situations all the time and Clare Corbett does this very well. Charles is a likeable but rather weak frustrating man ( if he is your husband) who is all too believable when he finds that he quite likes having his beautiful young wife back again and ready to have some fun with him. I enjoyed the fact that he was still young and fun loving.
And then we get to Elvira, Charles first wife who was never well behaved in life and finds enormous joy in coming back to run rings round everybody. Her character has suffered from the well meaning amateurs too, but not in the same way as Edith and Madam Arcati. You usually get too little of what is there on the page rather than too much. Wafting around looking charming in a posh frock is not enough. Elvira is one of the most delightful characters that Coward ever wrote, sexy, mysterious, funny, and capricious and wilful. Unfortunately for other talented, hard working actors who are also on stage at the same time as an actress playing her properly she is always going to steal the show. Heather Saunders does exactly that, looking wonderful, timing her lines beautifully and bringing the woman who is described in the early part of the play perfectly to life. It is lovely to watch and it needs to be- the play depends on her.
The period setting is nicely done, particularly in the accents and manners of the time which are lightly but accurately reproduced without seeming mannered or forced (many an amateur Charles has fallen at that fence) and I was very grateful for the light touch in the direction too allowing the play to zip along without anything extraneous being added. This play runs like clockwork if it is allowed to and it doesn’t need tinkering with.
I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to see Blithe Spirit yet again if I’m honest, but I’m very glad that I did. This production is a timely reminder after seventy years that it is still a great piece of writing and it still deserves to be seen.