The show that’ll lift every spirit

Courtney Act, Bessie Holland and Matt Day (left to right) in the Sydney Theatre Company production of Noël Coward's "Blithe Spirit": Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

Review: Blithe Spirit, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House – Friday, 25 March, 2022. Reviewed by editor-at-large Gary Nunn.

★★★★★

From the moment this production, surprisingly, opens to the dramatic piano bars of Celine Dion’s ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now’, you sense you’re about to witness fresh life breathed into one of theatre’s most performed plays by one of its most popular playwrights. 

You also get a glimpse of the sheer thrill that awaits you.

Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit uses the excellent theatrical device of the séance to invite his audience to gasp, laugh and lampoon the fanciful claims of the psychic-medium. That lampoonery then extends to the idle distractions the British upper classes use to amuse themselves: manifold dry martinis, dinner parties with friends, pianos, parlour games. 

One of the many things this Sydney Theatre Company (STC) production does so well is to hire a magic and illusions consultant, Adam Mada, to provide the trickery on set. Said trickery creates a suitably eerie atmosphere as the crystal ball is whipped out of the canvas bag of medium Madame Arcati, who has arrived on her bicycle after a 17-mile trip to perform the séance.

A séance is central to the plot of Blithe Spirit. Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

Ruth and Charles Condomine have invited Madame Arcati to their luxurious country home mainly for entertainment, but also for research as Charles, a novelist, plans to write his next book about psychics and the occult. 

To share in the fun, the couple have invited a second couple over, Doctor and Mrs Bradman.

As the four discuss their anticipation, excitement and nerves ahead of the medium’s visit, we learn that Doctor Bradman is an avowed sceptic, the voice of science and medicine amongst the group. But even he can’t but help the odd hilarious ironic highland fling, as the excitement becomes contagious. The suspense is glorious to watch.

But Madame Arcati is more adept than she seems. After a theatrical trance, she conjures much to the chagrin of Ruth a most problematic spirit, the beautiful Elvira (Courtney Act) first wife of Charles.

Brigid Zengeni plays the role of Madame Arcati. Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

Charles must then negotiate living arrangements with two wives, but the supernatural polygamy is disrupted by a darker plan of the deceptively frivolous Elvira. The plan goes wrong this is, after all, a farce. Bumbling Charles, who possesses the rare gift of being able to see the ghosts like a clairvoyant, must decide how to negotiate with his warring ghost wives, both keen for his affection. Only the woman they once privately ridiculed Madame Arcati can help him now.

Amongst all this otherworldly chaos unsettling the genteel English country house is the maid of the house, Edith, who walks in and out serving the couple, and often eavesdropping on their conversations about life, death, the afterlife and marriage. 

From the second Megan Wilding walks on stage as maid Edith, she performs a masterclass in comic timing. Her gait, her reactions and her physicality all add to the hilarity; she doesn’t even need to speak to provoke whoops, thigh slaps and cheers of enthusiastic laugher from the audience. Every time she walked off stage, I found myself longing for her return, only for her to pop up, in the background, pretending not to overhear the conversations, and I’d find tears rolling down my cheeks again. Pure joy.

Megan Wilding, as the maid, Edith, provides a masterclass in comic timing. Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

This hilarity is finely matched by Bessie Holland as Ruth. Director Paige Rattray’s masterstroke is to up the camp of this play, making all characters heightened caricatures. Holland takes on this brief with aplomb; her commitment, her delivery and her intuitive sense of comedy are the sharpest you’ll see on any stage. I was internally begging her not to be any funnier, my abs aching from her pitch perfect portrayal of a wife jealous of a ghost.   

When I thought I couldn’t possibly laugh more, I did. This time comedy gold was provided by Nancy Denis as Mrs Bradman. Her smiley nervous twitch, the way her gait was more a jig than a walk, her effusively polite repartee, beautifully spotlighted someone who’d, in any other production, be a forgettable secondary character. The shimmies of excitement and nervous anticipation at the medium’s arrival were delicious to watch.

Then there’s the problematic ex-wife ghost, and the question on everyone’s lips: can Courtney Act? This was Shane Jenek’s STC debut. The answer is a resounding yes, especially in a production this heightened with caricature. The mischievous yet captivatingly beautiful role of Elvira suits Courtney down to the ground. 

Courtney can act, writes Gary Nunn. Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

Every single person on this production from voice coach Leith McPherson encouraging actors to perfect that clipped hyperbole, to David Fleischer’s decadent yet tasteful design of the expensive drawing room about to be trashed by impish ghosts has excelled themselves.

Rattray’s choice of melodrama sets the tone, and it’s complemented wonderfully by the gender-blind casting of Tracy Mann as Dr Bradman and Courtney Act as Elvira. Both actors make you forget they’re even in drag; a feat.  

Layered on top of this are Mr Coward’s notorious witticisms, delivered memorably by the stellar cast. When Matt Day’s Charles expresses his curiosity at how “more upset people get by honesty than deceit”, it stays with you.

Matt Day plays the role of Charles in STC’s production of Blithe Spirit. Photo: Prudence Upton/supplied.

Madame Arcati is the least melodramatic of all cast members, which is saying something when she regularly goes into theatrical trances and borderline orgasms at a ghost’s light blow in her ear. Brigid Zengeni makes some fantastic choices to allow the brazen gusto of her fellow cast members to shine. 

Nowhere, on opening night, was this more delightful to watch, than when she briefly broke character to giggle at Bessie Holland’s flamboyantly posh pronouncement of “here” (“haiaar!”). The two, clearly finding a line that’d tickled them consistently in rehearsals, allowed themselves a snigger to rapturous applause from a thoroughly engaged audience, before resuming professionalism. That’s just how funny this show/Holland is: even fellow actors who’ve already heard it a hundred times find it/her hilarious. 

The only downsides are that it loses some of that buzzy energy in the second half, and at two hours, 40 minutes, it’s slightly long

But you barely notice that. You’re laughing too much.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s Blithe Spirit plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until Thursday, 14 May. For tickets and further details, visit www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2022/blithe-spirit

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel.

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