There was ectoplasmic presence a plenty at the second preview of Noel Coward’s astral comedy Blithe Spirit. Director Jeffrey Jay Fowler promised us a once in a lifetime experience as he peeked out from behind the sumptuous red curtain to inform us that Madame Arcati as played by Roz Hammond had been struck ill. He was proven correct in many ways. Alison van Reeken after only one read through of the script and one rehearsal all but stole the show giving a wonderfully physical performance as the clairvoyant even with script in hand.
Normally those three words – script in hand – send a shudder down the spine but here it was as impressive a feat of acting as you’ll see given the circumstances. Afterwards Fowler admitted it was quite a different interpretation of the character but for me it gave the show a jolt of unpredictability as the other actors reacted to van Reeken’s spontaneous and oft hilarious antics.
The set was superbly appointed with the Condomine home well represented with portraits, period furniture, gramophone, and large French doors, stage left. It also revealed some cleverly executed secrets later in the play to great effect. At first though the cavernous space posed somewhat of a problem with plenty of echo and a lot of the opening dialogue faint and a little indistinct. The projection improved certainly with the introduction of van Reeken and Michael Loney (Dr. Bradman) but eventually across the board as all the actors warmed to the task.
It was a bit of a tentative start but the play really found a rhythm in the scene between Charles (Adam Booth) and Ruth Condomine (Adriane Daff) the morning after the séance that summons Charles’ dead first wife Elvira (Jo Morris). The rat-a-tat-tat dialogue as the two exchange arch comments based on Ruth’s misunderstanding of her husband’s retorts to the ghostly Elvira ups the energy and pacing dramatically. There is a similar exchange in the second half between Charles and Elvira that equally pops and fizzes with wonderfully written and delivered verbal venom and dexterity.
|Booth, Hetherington & Daff - Gary Marsh Photography|
Booth was very good as the writer who initially is only interested in researching jargon for his latest novel, never inclined to believe Madame Arcati’s talents. His arc from disbelief to concern about his mental state on seeing Elvira to embracing and then enjoying the fun and games of the situation to finally exasperation and alarm was well calibrated. Morris plays Elvira with an almost childish glee and impetuousness as she beguiles Charles and infuriates Ruth. Dressed entirely in white with deathly pale makeup and powdered white hair she is a restless spirit as she glides around the stage barefoot.
Daff’s Ruth was very formal, rigid and quite glacial and she was at her best when allowing the character’s urbane façade to slip as frustration and bitchiness emerged. It was a performance that only became stronger the longer the play went. Ella Hetherington (Edith) committed to her character’s running gag that was quite literally a running gag until the maid takes on much greater significance in the second half. Loney and Michelle Fornasier (Mrs. Bradman) lent good support with their own running gag over the doctor’s reluctant refusal of various nightcaps.
|Fornasier, Booth, Daff & Loney - |
Gary Marsh Photography
The lighting design by Jon Buswell, especially in representing different times of day, was very good and Ash Gibson Greig provided fun and creepy musical interludes as the curtains were closed as the stage was reset between scenes.
It is quite a long play and the second half was much tighter than the first but that should shake out over the run and as van Reeken is integrated into the cast after a hugely impressive last minute debut.
Written by Noel Coward and Directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler, Blithe Spirit stars Adam Booth, Adriane Daff, Michelle Fornasier, Alison Van Reeken, Ella Hetherington, Michael Loney and Jo Morris and is on at the Heath Ledger Theatre until 9 August.