Blithe Spirit

(Brisbane Arts Theatre)


Noel Coward penned Blithe Spirit in 1941 in an effort to keep theatre-going Brits’ minds off World War II. Six decades later, in a world again rife with uncertainty, Blithe spirits itself onto the Brisbane Arts Theatre stage. Whether the director intended this production to emulate the original reasons for the play or not, it certainly lives up to its comedic intentions.

Blithe Spirit was written in five days when Coward had a kind of psychic epiphany. Six weeks later it took to the stage and ran for a remarkable four and a half years. This gives you an idea of the calibre of the script, dubbed a “comedic masterpiece” by some. Even the original program, in the spirit of the piece stated: “If an air raid warning be received during this performance, the audience will be informed from the stage …. Those desiring to leave the theatre may do so, but the performance will continue.”

The story haunts around the goings on of a bizarre night in the Condomine home. Charles Condomine (John Grey) and his wife Ruth (Janet Devlin) host a dinner party. One of the guests is Madame Arcati (Beverley Wood), resident madwoman and self-professed medium who, unknowingly is the subject of research for Charles’ latest mystery novel of the occult. Before long, the party progresses (as parties do) from dinner and wine to raising the dead.

But the spirit dragged from the grave isn’t any ordinary ghost, it’s Elvira (Kym Ford), Charles’ first wife, and she’s up to mischief. The problem is, Charles is the only one who can see and hear her. This is where most of the laughs come from as Ruth thinks Charles is talking to her when he’s really talking to Elvira. Ruth and Charles’ marriage suddenly is not as perfect as first thought and their marital fabric is torn at the seams.

For those who’ve never seen it, I won’t give too much more away, except to say that there are some rather clever twists in the second act.

Director Gary O’Neil appears to achieve his purpose, maintaining the comedy while giving the audience glimpses of the slightly darker, dare I say misogynistic undercurrent. The dual simultaneous dialogue between the living and the dead is well upheld, and the actors generally do a good job of “not noticing” the ghosts.

Despite a few line-stumbles Grey plays the protagonist adequately, with the smugness the character requires. He is capably supported by Devlin who, as precise as she is domineering, shines as Charles’ highly-strung wife, and maintains a very convincing accent. Beverley Wood owns the stage and is the source of much comedy as the raving lunatic, with manic gesticulations to suit her rather humorous lines. Kym Ford is visibly having fun as she flows around the stage, blissfully flaunting her ghostly powers. Completing the cast is the housemaid Edith (Davina Barlow) and dinner guests Dr and Mrs Bradman (David Fitzgerald and Karen Houghton).

The English living room set (complete with fireplace) is interestingly framed by war paraphernalia, no doubt to remind us of contemporary war environment. Lighting is suitable, apart from one distracting glitch at an integral moment. Scene changes are rather long but music is used as a distraction. Costuming is generally well-done from the colourful eccentricity of Madame Arcati to the ghostly monochromatic Elvira.

Perhaps first-night nerves accounted for the rushed nature of the opening scene. Trying to get used to the accents, I found that things ran too quickly, resulting in quite a few lost lines. This was remedied, however, and a suitable pace was maintained for the rest of the show.

The almost full house seemed genuinely happy with the action on stage, especially with Wood who received applause every time she exited. As the show eases into its season, I’m certain the minor technical problems will disappear. In short, if you’re after something to rattle your chains, Blithe Spirit might just be the ticket you’re dying to get.

— Grant Pegg
(Performance seen: Thu 6th February 2003)