Blithe Spirit has passed beyond criticism, quite in the manner of the Queen Mother; venerable, unexceptionable, faintly twee, rather fondly regarded by those who can remember the Blitz. Except perhaps in one respect: Noel Coward claimed to have written the play in “five days during one of the darkest years of the war”, and though it is perhaps an effect of modern sensibilities, it is a matter for regret that he didn’t spend a sixth day tightening up the second half.
At two hours and 40 minutes including a 20-minute interval, nobody will feel they didn’t get value for money. But there are repetitive notions and businesses towards the end that could have been left out without too much detriment.
As with other productions of this 50th anniversary season for the MTC, the play has other significances; it was produced in the inaugural season of the (then) Union Theatre Repertory Company. It’s also the last production of the current season.
For those few who have managed to avoid all contact with the play (including the fine 1945 David Lean film with Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond and Margaret Rutherford), Blithe Spirit concerns a writer of murder mysteries, Charles Condomine (William McInnes), who invites a medium, Madame Arcati (Miriam Margolyes), to conduct a seance at his home. He is married to a second wife, Ruth (Roz Hammond), and in the course of the seance the spirit of his first wife, Elvira (Pamela Rabe), is called back from the Other Side, hellbent on causing trouble for her replacement.
The MTC has assembled an impressive cast; the principals are joined by Georgie Bax as dotty maid Edith, and Mark Pegler and Merridy Eastman as the other seance guests, Dr and Mrs Bradman. Perhaps the standout is Margolyes in the role of the eccentric medium. Blithe Spirit is the MTC debut for Margolyes, familiar to many for her appearances in Blackadder, as the Nurse in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films. She has a striking comic presence, and does the plum role in the play justice.
Also striking is Gabriela Tylesova’s set design; in fact “striking” may be too faint a term to describe it. The entire interior, floor to ceiling, is done out in a kind of gigantic red and white wallpaper, which, unsurprisingly, dominates the whole look of the production. Daring, no doubt, as was her superb black and white design for The Visit earlier this year, but this time it jars with what is otherwise a quite conventional production. The magic tricks – a flying vase, a floating table and so on – work well, and the lighting by Matt Scott creates a spooky atmosphere very nicely.
Most of the original naughty thrills – the idea of a man with two simultaneous wives – have lost their effect, but Blithe Spirit is still charming in a slightly faded sort of way, and makes an appropriate end to this significant anniversary season for the company.
Photos by Tracey Schramm
Photos by Teresa Janzek