Written during World War II, this comedy with a supernatural twist is one of Noel Coward’s best known plays, full of characteristic fruity language, and here in the face of death, marital disunion and the unexplained. The Melbourne Theatre Company’s revival includes a few surprises – and a familiar face.
Novelist Charles (Geoff Morrell) is writing a book on spirituality, and for research calls in the psychic Madame Arcadi (Miriam Margolyes). Assumed to be a fake, the medium is summarily ridiculed by Charles, his (second) wife Ruth (Roz Hammond) and their guests, Dr and Mrs Bradman (Mark Pegler and Merridy Eastman). The action commences when, unwittingly during a seance, the group summon Charles’s first wife Elvira (Pamela Rabe) back from the “other side” – and she wastes no time in creating all manner of mischief.
It is here that the set’s garish red leaf design and the show’s delightfully uninhibited use of technology rise to the fore. We are treated to the use of original ghostly music, brilliant lighting effects and a set that reveals itself to be far more subtle than it at first appeared. Were the production to rely exclusively on Coward’s supreme dialogue, much laughter would still have ensued, but to give cause for a revival, this production really does do things differently.
That’s not to say that the gizmos overshadow the cast. Margolyes, who plays Madame Arcadi sensationally, is the character actress known to Harry Potter fans as Professor Sprout – and the rest of us as the voice of the Cadbury’s Caramel bunny. Here her show-stopping facial expressions are ably assisted by the costume department’s outlandish garments. It’s the choice role of the play, but Margolyes doesn’t settle with a good performance – she is little short of unmissable.
Rabe, too, has great fun with her role as the spontaneous Elvira, giving depth to her ethereal quality whilst maintaining her sense of fun. Hammond’s Ruth is as stern and terrifying as she could be, while Morrell’s Charles also turns in a good performance of bumbling-colonel characteristics.
Coward’s language is at its sublime best in Blithe Spirit, but this production’s inventiveness adds to its joy.