Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward | Black Swan State Theatre Company
Heath Ledger Theatre
Reviewed Saturday 25 July, 2015
Black Swan Associate Director Jeffrey Jay Fowler is making his main stage directorial debut with Noel Coward’s WWII-era comedy Blithe Spirit. It’s a different choice for Fowler, who is best known for writing and devising his own new works, rather than blowing the dust off of old classics. However it’s probably a good exercise as part of his career trajectory to take on a popular English drawing-room comedy from yesteryear. It certainly fits into Black Swan’s unspoken mission to keep the old favourites alive as part of their regular programming, and thus will satisfy certain sectors of their subscriber base.
The text is a bit outdated, and certainly the characters speak and behave in ways that don’t fit our current reality. However, many people do love a bit of nostalgia and can easily forgive the sometimes embarrassing mores of yesteryear (Madame Arcati’s disparaging remarks about Indians, for instance); and we can certainly enjoy hearing ourselves say knowingly, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” So it follows that we might always find certain timeless truths in Blithe Spirit which would naturally explain its continued popularity amongst producers and audiences.
Fowler, in his director’s notes, explains that he found within the text truths about everlasting love and the ghosts we leave behind, and that’s where the play’s relevance lies for modern audiences. This is a perfectly well-reasoned approach, and he delivered a mostly straightforward interpretation of the text. The script is exceedingly wordy, and this is, of course, out of the director’s and actors’ hands. It’s full of clever witticisms and quips, drips with the characters’ barely concealed contempt for one another, but often leaves very little wiggle room for interpretation for many of the characters.
And therein lies one of its traps – it’s terribly easy for the actors to fall into a kind of rhythmical lull that pulls them perilously close to becoming mechanical. Adam Booth (Charles) and Adriane Daff (Ruth) seem to have fallen into that lull in some of their scenes together, and I couldn’t always detect a clear intention behind their words or see the gears turning as they spoke. Taking a much broader approach was Jo Morris (Elvira), who chose to pull one of her squeaky voices out of her acting hat to get around the trap; she found a comic volatility to her character that infused chemistry and life into her scenes with Booth. Michael Loney as the doctor is a welcome warm and generous presence on scene.
In any case, the heroine of the production is Alison van Reeken, who stepped in at the very last minute as Madame Arcati after Roz Hammond left the production due to illness. Van Reeken appeared with script in hand for most of the performance, but this was almost of no consequence. Her performance did not suffer, she hardly missed a beat, and her character was as full and fun as if she had been rehearsing it for much longer than the five performances she had under her belt by the time I saw her.
The set designed by Bryan Woltjen is big and impressive when the curtains first part, as Ash Gibson Greig’s music introduces us to the absurd and spooky world we’re about to enter. Greig’s humorous musical interludes between scenes were a highlight, and his main theme is a hooky little earworm of a tune.
Blithe Spirit has some lively moments with a few parlour tricks up its sleeve for added fun.